Thursday, April 26, 2012
I'm doing a lot of bicycling this year, and have had a number of people express their frustration that they don't seem to be doing well on bikes. So I've written up some advice based around common mistakes I see bikers making.
First of all, is your seat high enough? When you are pedaling, your leg should extend to almost completely straight on the downstroke. A lot of people want to be able to be able to put their feet on the ground while still in the saddle, and that's a huge mistake. You are losing about half of your pedaling power if you don't have your saddle high enough. On my road bike, my saddle and the handlebars are at the same height. On my mountain bike, which has a smaller frame, the saddle is actually higher than the handlebars. It can be kind of scary to ride like this at first, but it's definitely worth practicing on neighborhood streets to get good at it.
If you are riding a mountain or road bike, it probably came with a narrow saddle meant for a guy. I have changed out the saddles on every bike I've owned, and ride with an extra saddle pad right now (I have a new saddle to try out, but I've been too lazy to put it on the bike). You should look at changing to a better saddle. Also, women are generally more comfortable if they ride with the nose of the saddle tipped slightly downward. This takes pressure off the front of the pelvic structure. It's an adjustment that can be made pretty easily with an Allen wrench, so it's worth trying first as the cheapest solution to saddle pain.
Finally, how is your shifting? I shift like a beast, continually adjusting up or down a gear to compensate for changes in the terrain and even for the wind. If you are just grinding along in one gear, you need to learn how to use your gears more efficiently. Most bikes these days have three gears in front at the pedals and 5-9 in the back by the tires. Shifting is all about gear ratios: how many turns of the wheel you get out of a circle of pedaling.
Let's start at the front. The front gears, controlled by your left-hand shifter, are the big gears that make the most obvious difference. When the chain is on the largest of these gears, you are getting the most wheel revolutions out of your pedaling, but you are also working the hardest and putting the most strain on your knees. I don't recommend riding on this gear much until you build your strength a bit and get a good feel for shirting.
The middle gear is your cruising gear. This is where you will do most of your riding, particularly at the beginning. It puts less strain on your knees and lets you get a good feel for the subtler shifts on the back gears, which I will get to in a minute.
The smallest gear is what is often referred to as the "granny gear." This is the gear that you will only shift down to when you are climbing hills. The pedal spin to wheel turn ratio is very low, but it allows you to climb hills without resorting to standing up and putting a lot of force into the pedalling -- and therefore onto your knees.
The back gears, controlled by the shifter at your right hand, make much more subtle adjustments to your gear ratios. By shifting up and down in these gears, you can adjust for small inclines and declines and the wind. As you first start learning to use your gears efficiently, don't concentrate on your speed. Instead, concentrate on the amount of work your legs are doing and shift up or down to try and keep that amount of work as consistent as possible. This will give you time to get familiar with shifting and help you to learn to make shifting almost automatic as you ride along.
(Just a word of caution: no matter how many speeds your bike has, try to avoid biking in the combination of the top range of one gear and the bottom range of the other--no 3 in front and 1 in back or 1 in front and 7 or 9 in back--as this can put too much tension on the chain and pull the back derailleur out of alignment.)
You will make mistakes at first. You will forget which lever shifts up and which shifts down. Don't get frustrated: at the beginning of every bike season I have to retrain myself, and sometimes I fumble a shift even now! But the more you practice, the better you will get at it, and the more pleasant your biking will be.