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Monday, May 17, 2010

NY Times on Crashing

The New York Times has an interesting piece today about that little fear we all have in the backs of our minds... the fear of crashing.

I have never had a... you know... c-r-a-s-h, but the fear of my last moments in the grill of a cement truck is ever present. It is a healthy fear that keeps us alive. We pay attention more and our brains often react to danger before we realize what we've seen.

I know many cyclists who have a heightened sense of perception when riding in traffic. Years of living in Taiwan makes this "Spidey Sense" extra sensitive. I don't know how many times I have visited the U.S. and flinched at cars approaching a controlled stop. You learn to anticipate what drivers will do (and they usually do the stupidest thing at the stupidest time). The only way to keep fear in check is through the confidence of practice. When we know what a crisp corner should feel like because we've done it enough times.

Still, the close calls always keep you alert.

The Perfect Climbing Bike

The Perfect Climbing Bike:

For the coming weeks I hope to do more climbing to prepare for the June ride across the Central Cross Island Highway. As I get back into climbing shape after 6 weeks in the flats, I can feel I am not as sharp as I had been before. Often, the cyclist’s first reaction is to blame the bike. The bike is too heavy, flexy, the wrong gearing, the wrong geometry.

So it got me thinking… if I were to start over and build up a bike specifically for climbing, what would I look for. Taiwan has a lot of steep grades and good climbing characteristics are definitely a plus in a bike.

First, the bike should fit really well. When riding a bike in general and especially in climbs, the body is asked to undergo some pretty hard stresses. An ill-fit bike on a climb can cause minor fitting issues to become major very quickly. The last thing anyone needs on a sustained day of climbing is your body screaming at you for having a poor center of gravity or bars that are too narrow.

Second, is stiffness in the bottom bracket and chainstays. Frame stiffness helps transfer power into motion. Though, there will be some flex, so the energy is not necessarily lost on a rigid framed bike, but this can be limited by the proper design.

A climbing bike should be as small and compact as the rider can ride. This allows a compact bike that can be pulled up hills and compensate for a forward position and out of the saddle time. A shorter TT with a longer stem can be a help on the descent.

For lighter riders a lighter bike might make a little bit of difference, but for most people, and especially larger riders, a .lb off the bike is not going to be seen in the climbing. Some people suggest relaxed geometry for quicker standing climbs, but it could be a liability later on.

The bars, stem, fork and crank arms should be strong and stiff to best handle the stress from the amount of snap and upper body work that goes into a climb. A lot of the climbing technique involves the upper body and it is easy to torque on the interface components.

A stiff set of wheels is a plus to not bounce or flex with each pedal stroke.

Lastly is gearing. For a road bike a wider range of gears at the top end would be ideal to the tight range of gears typically used in the flats. The last time I rode Taroko there was a poor guy on his first new road bike. The guys at Giant set him up for climbing on a standard 53/39 crank and an 11-23 tooth cassette in the back. Ouch! Even a lot of pros prefer the compact crankset (50/34-11-26 or 12-27). There is nothing wrong with being geared for climbing to pedal more efficiently. I don’t know how far he made it, but if he keeps it up he should have legs the size of tree trunks.

The Perfect Descending Bike:

So I got done thinking about what a fantastic climbing bike should look like… and then started thinking about the other side of the equation…what a great the descending bike would look like.

Some of what I outlined above should be factored in. A smaller bike with shorter wheelbase and stays should handle quicker in taking the corners. The rider can more easily tuck into the bike and reduce drag. An aero frame doesn’t help a lick going up, but going down it may lend an advantage. A deeper dish rim might be helpful too. A higher degree HT angle will allow for better tracking.

The Engine:

But really, the issue of a climbing bike isn’t as influenced by the bike as it is determined by the engine. Proper training, conditioning and experience will get a rider up a hill much faster than creating the perfect climbing bike.

When climbing it is good to ride with the arms open a little bit and stretched out enough to open up the lungs and diaphragm. Relax the entire upper body. We need to get the oxygen into the bloodstream and breathing kinda helps. Slower deep breaths with plenty of air helps supply the muscles with enough oxygen.

To conserve energy, the cadence should be between 75-95 rpm. Some people go faster, but you don’t want to waste energy mashing up a hill and blowing out your big muscles before you summit.

When I was a kid I would just stand and pedal to get up a tough hill. I was four feet tall and weighed nothing. Now I like to stay seated for most of the climb. A seated climb distributes the workload between the muscles better and brings the powerful glutes into play. Standing climbs can be great for short periods to rest overworked muscles, but it is far less efficient. When I find my legs tiring I point my toes up to bring my hamstrings into play.

To really become a skilled climber, you need to get out and climb. Interval training is a great way to quickly increase your climbing chops. Just go out and find a steeper hill you can ride up in 15-45 sec. then hit it as hard as you can. Then roll down and rest for 30 sec. and then do it again and again and again and again until you feel like you want to puke. It is brutal, but it works wonders.

If that doesn’t sound like a good time, then keep working hills into your rides and try to fight through them until they become easier.

The other thing to consider is using the dinner table to lighten the bike. More weight can be shaved from a bike at the dinner table than anywhere else. A little self-control and diet consciousness can really take a lot of weight off the bike. Every extra pound of fat you have on your body is one extra pound you are lugging up a hill. Those 20 extra lbs. should be imagined as cans of coke. It is like carrying a bag filled with 20 cans of coke up a hill. But spending $$$$ on a lighter bike is so much quicker and easier than losing the weight.

Lastly, if you have the money or you have somebody buying your equipment for you then the idea of a pure climbing bike could be really appealing. For most of us, we don't just climb and don't just descend. We do a variety of riding. The perfect climbing bike might not be what you want for your next century, criterioum, tour of India or Gran Fondo. A balance of characteristics is often a good thing.