Monday, October 28, 2013

Absolute Beginners: You want me to wear what? Spandex!

New cyclists often complain about cycling clothing, refusing to wear it: It's expensive and pretty much useless for anything else. Its ugly. Its not flattering. It exposes my junk. After a while, it smells. It makes me look like a dork.

All valid, criticisms but in the end, even vociferous spandex naysayers will, eventually, wear cycling clothing. Why? Because it is supremely functional for long distance riding.

Here are a few reasons:

1. Tight fitting clothing doesn't bunch up and cause sores.

All cyclists eventually get "saddle sores," or skin irritation in the crease between the buttock and the thigh. Though there are many causes of saddle sores, one cause is poorly fitting bike shorts, or bike shorts with stitching in the wrong place. The folds of fabric or stitching can rub the skin, causing it to become raw, then native bacteria can infect it, causing angry, itching sores which make riding unpleasant.

To avoid saddle sores, begin by keeping a smooth layer between your buttocks and the saddle. Experiment with lubricants: vaseline (which is thick and so works well, but is difficult to remove from the cycling pad), chamois butter, or even silicone-based lubricants, or none at all.

2. Cycling shorts have the padding you're missing from the saddle.

In my entry on cycling seats, I recommended the smaller, compact saddles used frequently by cyclists. Such saddles help avoid saddle sores, are lighter, and allow free leg movement. But you still don't want your sit bones resting on a hard surface. So where does the padding go? In the cycling shorts, of course! And that is why those pads are in there.
Thor Hushovd. Image Credit

3. Cycling clothing is purposefully light weight and fast drying.

A pair of cotton shorts can weigh about a pound, but a typical bike outfit can weigh much less than a pound! The less you have to push up that hill, the more achievable it is.

Cycling involves sweat. Lots of it. But it also involves varied environmental conditions. Unless that sweat can escape, its going to build up in your clothing, weighing you down, causing to to overheat while exercising and to get chilled when at rest, and its going to start to stink. But cycling clothing is designed to dry quickly even while exercising, minimizing the build up of moisture. And being dry is so important while riding!

4. Many styles of cycling clothing are convertible.

Rides are often long. They can take from 2 hours for a 30 mile ride to 8 hours for a 100 mile ride. Thus, rides often start early in the morning when its cold and damp. The sun rises and so do the temperatures. Or the ride up hill is sunny and hot, while the descent is cold and shaded. Or half way through a lovely ride, the wind kicks up and it starts to drizzle.

So, for every ride, you need to be prepared for multiple riding conditions. Cycling clothing can help. For instance, you can purchase extremely light-weight Goretex jackets which block the wind and keep you surprisingly warm, but which can pack up small enough to fit into your jersey pocket. You can purchase insulated cycling sleeves and leggings which can be pulled up or down while you're riding.

There's a good outfit for every condition. Check the weather and be prepared.

5. Layering adds warmth without significant weight.

If you know that its going to be a cold day, you may be tempted to don a thick sweater, down jacket, or other rain coat. But if properly layered, cycling clothing can achieve comparable warmth without the bulk.

On cold days, I typically wear a base layer (often lycra or wool) under my jersey. Sleeves of various insulation depending on the forecast. A jersey. A Goretex jacket — I have a very thin one and an insulated one — depending. Cycling shorts, also of varying insulation. Gloves of various insulation levels (or two pair of gloves woolen under fingerless). And insulated leggings. I can take things on or off as needed.

On my feet on cold days, I'll wear woolen socks and water resistant, insulated toe covers over my shoes.

6. If cared for properly, cycling clothing lasts a long time.

All this clothing is expensive. I probably have $2,000 or more in cycling clothing. But if kept clean and dry, it can take years to wear out. The most expensive pieces — Goretex and insulated — often will last for many years because they are the least used in California.

7. You get used to the odor.

Sadly, spandex has a tendency to retain odors. Its never pleasant, but its worth it for the thrill and fun of cycling. Wool retains less odor, so try wool garments, too.

I hope this helps. If so, consider donating $5 or more to my ALC ride. Click "Donate," above.

Your Bear

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!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Absolute Beginners: Handlebars and Control

On a road bike, the handlebars are the place where you rest your hands, part of the load distribution between front and rear wheels, the location of the bicycle controls for brakes and shifting, and integral to steering.

This post answers two general questions. First, why do long distance cyclists usually choose road bicycle handlebars? Second, what role do the handlebars play in controlling the bicycle?

1. Why do Long-Distance Cyclists Choose Road-bike Handlebars?

As with every other part of your bicycle, there are a number of choices you can make in handlebar style:
Figure A.1: Typical Road Bicycle Handlebars. Image Credit.
Figure A.2: Road Bicycle Handlebars with Brakes and Shifters. Image Credit.

Figure B: A more relaxed handlebar configuration. Image Credit.

Figure C: Mountain Bike Handlebars. Image Credit.
If you read the Wikipedia entry on bicycle handlebars, you will see over ten identified styles of handlebars. But as you do the ALC, you'll notice that the vast majority of riders use the type shown in Figure A.1 and A.2. As we'll explore in future posts, road bicycles provide a smaller contact to the road, give you a less-upright position, and give you the opportunity to distribute your weight relatively evenly between the handlebars and the saddle. These features exist, in part, because in road cycling, you may spend extended lengths of time in, essentially, one position.

Figure D: Parts of the Handlebars.
Handlebars are a tube of metal (or carbon fiber) intended to accommodate your hands as comfortably as possible. They're tubular and not solid to cut vibration, because tubes are lighter, and because they are stronger for this application. Some features of the road bars in order to accommodate the specific positions your body takes in road cycling are: multiple grip points, controls accessible from most of the grip points, and tape covering the entire bar. See Figure D for the names of the parts of a handlebar (not every bike will have this exact configuration).

These features provide two primary benefits for road cyclists:

  • Multiple hand placements during a ride. Allows:
    • Altered placements during long rides to avoid cramping and discomfort, generally.
    • Use of the top of the handlebar during ascents.
    • Use of the hoods during the bulk of the ride.
    • Use of the drops during descents.
    • Quick access to the brakes and shifters from each placement.
  • A neutral hand position in each placement (meaning the wrists are in line with the forearms). This puts the least amount of strain on the wrists and forearms, and should help alleviate numbness and pain.

a. The Hoods.

You'll spend most of your time with your hands engaged in the hoods. What that means is the crook between your thumb and forefinger will be pressed against the plastic portion (hood), your thumb will be crooked over the hood, and your other fingers will be wrapped around the hood and below it on the hook. In this position, you can easily open your fingers to use the brakes and shifters. Your grip should generally be firm but light (not a death grip), but should affix your hand firmly to the bar. (That way if you hit an unexpected bump, your hand doesn't fly off.)

b. The Top and the Drop.

From your standard position in the hoods, you'll move your hand — still firmly wrapped around the tube — to the top when on long ascents, to give your hand a break, or to drink from your water bottle. This position is furthest from the brake levers, so keep your eye on the road and be prepared to move to the drops if necessary.

You'll move your hand to the bottom of the hook or the drop on long descents, to give yourself a more aerodynamic seating posture, and to give your hand a rest. Riding in the drops can be challenging for new riders, so get used to it on flats or very gradual descents before trying it on steep descents. You can brake or shift from the drops, so practice that as well.

c. Neutral Wrist Position.

A primary complaint riders have is that their hands, fingers, forearms, and beyond get numb with longer rides. Part of the solution is to maintain a neutral wrist position — meaning your wrists are in the same plane as your forearms and palms.

Figure E: Not a perfect position. Image Credit and Details.
Figure E shows a cyclist with a fairly good wrist position. Notice that his palm is not flexed. But also notice that the line of his hand is bent relative to the line of his forearm. A good position, but he could do better (read the discussion for details). For a good understanding of neutral wrist position, see Figure F.

Figure F: Ideal Neutral Wrist Position. Image Credit.
I used to grow numb on long, flat rides, but not on hilly rides. For me the resolution was a bike fit. The fitter swapped out my stem and handlebars to bring the controls closer to my body and to narrow the handlebars to prevent strain on my shoulders, too. That and seat adjustments completely eliminated numbness and most soreness.

If you have a bike fit, your fitter may alter the geometry of the bars. You may get a shorter stem (the component which attaches the handlebars to the frame. You may get a tighter or shorter hook to place the drops closer to your body. You may get a narrower handlebar to keep your wrists in a neutral position. Or the fitter may simply adjust the angle of the bars to the frame.

2. What role do the Handlebars Play in Bicycle Control?

Just to state the obvious: handle bars are not a steering wheel. Bicycles are not controlled by wrenching the handlebars from side to side, but instead by more subtle movements of the body. That being said, bicycles turn the way they do because the front wheel is free to move from the plane of the rest of the bike. So, what role do handlebars play in steering?

Mainly, the handlebars are used in a maneuver called countersteering. A full discussion of countersteering will be the subject of a future blog post, but see my prior posts about cornering. The gist of countersteering is that rather than pulling your handlebars to the right to complete a right turn, you gently press on the right handlebar causing the bike to lean to the right — counter to the pressure. In cycling, however, you use your whole body to give the bike that gentle pressure to the left, rather than just the handlebar (which is somewhat different that in motorcycling).

In a future edition of Absolute Beginners I will walk you through a complete turn.

Your Bear

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!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Absolute Beginners: The Saddle and Seating

The first three posts in my Absolute Beginner's series are about the body-bicycle interface: pedals, saddle, handlebars. This week, I write about the saddle or seat.
Figure A. Parts of a Bicycle. Image Credit (with more detail).
Your saddle is much more than a comfy place to put your butt while enjoying the scenery. Instead, it's an integral part of how you operate the bicycle.

1. Choosing a saddle shape.

Just like nearly every other component, there is a range of saddle types, depending on the type of bike and the shape of the rider. (Here's an extensive summary of bicycle saddles and their various parts.)

Figure B1. Classic Saddle. Image Credit.
Figure B2. Touring Saddle. Image Credit.

Figure B3. Road bike Saddle. Image Credit.
Walking around cycling shops, you'll notice many different saddle shapes and sizes. New cyclists may be tempted to choose a large, broad, soft or springy model. But there's a reason why road bike saddles are shaped as they are.

When you ride long distances, a larger saddle may chafe your inner thighs and a softer saddle provides insufficient support to your sit bones — the point where your butt actually intersects with the saddle. That is why saddles have the narrowed, tapered shape and the broad backside. Here is the problem with larges, squishy saddles simply stated:

Imagine sitting down on a coffee table. Your weight is concentrated on the two bumps of your "sit bones", also known as the "ischial tuberosities." These are the parts of your body designed to bear your seated weight. Most cases of saddle-related discomfort arise because the load is carried on the soft tissues between the sit bones. 
Imagine placing a soft pillow on top of the coffee table. Now, as you sit down on it, the sit bones compress the pillow, which yields until the sit bones are almost on the table surface again. The difference is that now, you have pressure in between your sit bones from the middle part of the pillow. 
In the same way, a saddle with excessively soft, thick padding can make you less comfortable by increasing the pressure between your sit bones. 
Many cyclists are unaware of this, and many saddles are made to appeal to the purchaser who chooses a saddle on the basis of how easily the thumb can sink into the squishy top. 
This type of saddle is only comfortable for very short rides, (though an inexperienced cyclist will often find it more comfortable than a better saddle, as long as rides don't exceed a mile or two.) 
Saddles with excessive padding are also a common cause of painful chafing of the inner thigh, as rides become longer.

(Thank you Sheldon Brown.)

If you find discomfort in your butt or numbness in your privates, you may have the wrong saddle or may have other fit issues. Before spending a lot of money on a series of new saddles, I recommend you get a competent bike fit: "It's the best $300 you'll ever spend to get more comfort and power out of your trusty steed." (not the bike fit you get from a salesperson when you buy the bike).

2. The Butt's Role in Support.

As a new rider, you may have the impression that riding a bicycle means sitting on the saddle, holding on by the handlebars, and pedaling with your thighs. However, that is not the proper way to look at it.

When riding, a good rule of thumb is to start out with about 60% of your weight on the rear wheel (via your butt), 40% the front wheel (via your arms), and shifting these numbers onto the pedals to varying degrees during pedal strokes (via your thighs and legs). Most of the google references on this topic are highly technical and related to racing. But for a new rider, the issue is comfort.

If you put too much weight on your butt, you're going to chafe and you're going to dislike cycling. If you put too much weight on your arms and hands, you're going to get numb fingers and you're going to dislike cycling. Thus, what is important is to keep a healthy balance between the two, attempting to keep everything under as little stress as possible for the maximum amount of time.

3. The Butt's Role in Control.

Steering a bicycle is not as simple as grabbing the handlebars and yanking left and right. There's a full-body motion involved in each and every turn you make. Smaller turns require the more subtle motion, too. This portion of this article will require more detailed explanation, and a quick Google search did not return immediately applicable material.

As I've written before, and will again when I write my article on steering, a good turn occurs when you press on the pedal with your outside foot, inside foot high in the pedal stroke. So, one of the most important roles of the saddle in steering is providing a lever from which to generate the push on the outside foot.

Another important role is when you need to actively lean your bike into a sharp, high-speed turn. More about that in a future post.

4. Why Your Butt Hurts: Changing Saddles may not Fix it.

There are two reasons why your butt may be hurting. First, you may be getting chaffing, which leads to irritation, which leads to infection. Symptoms of this are redness, bumps, pain, swelling, and itchiness. This kind of infection is common among cyclists. Over time, you may become a bit calloused in the creases under your butt cheeks. This is nothing to be alarmed over, so long as you cure any infection before it becomes chronic.

Try using some antibiotic ointment on the infected area (I'm not sure of the efficacy of this treatment, so consult with your doctor). Your physician may prescribe lidocaine to reduce pain and inflammation. Additionally, you may try ibuprofen or acetaminophen to reduce inflammation. Also, experiment with different short materials and styles. The stitching in less-expensive shorts may not agree with your physique.

Consult with your physician if these symptoms occur frequently, persist, or become severe. Otherwise, they are, to some degree, a right of passage for cyclists.

Second, you may experience soreness in your buttocks, thighs, or hamstrings after rides. If these symptoms are bearable and reduce with continued riding, they may be simply a matter of getting used to cycling. If they become worse with time or longer rides, you may need a bike fit.

In fact, if either of these conditions persist, a bike fit might help. Subtle changes in your interface with the bike may alleviate the pressure causing chaffing or causing muscular pain. Only consultation with a professional and testing will help you know for sure.

Your Bear

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!