Monday, May 17, 2010


I went for a ride on Sunday with one of my teammates for the Ski to Sea. She's going to be doing the road cycling leg of the race in two weeks but she's only been cycling for a few months and was a bit nervous about being able to complete the leg.

We parked in Kendall, a small town in the dip in the leg's elevation profile, and headed east along SR-542. The road cycling leg of the race will start near the Mt. Baker ski resort at the top of 542, descend into Kendall, and then go over a low pass and through some farmland to Everson, a town on the Nooksack river.

Based on Alair's experience riding bikes and nervousness about the leg, I thought that some good goals for the ride would be to make sure her bike fit her more-or-less alright and was in safe mechanical shape, and then see if I could teach her anything about technique. It takes months to develop aerobic capacity and the race is on the 30th. Technique, however, can be improved in a couple hours and an improvement in technique has the potential to improve someone's power output and enjoyment of cycling tremendously. Another goal was to do the hardest climb on the route.

The first thing we worked on was bike fit. Some adjustments to saddle and handlebar position made the bike a lot more comfortable for Alair. She'd figured out the major adjustment, but forty miles later, the subtleties can be pretty important.

542 East is surprisingly mellow around Kendall - I expected it to have a pretty continuous grade with some stiff climbs mixed in, but the river it follows seems to have done most of its descending by the time it gets to where we were. Alair remarked on the beauty of the area. I don't mind riding my bike in the city and around Seattle, but really getting out into the countryside is definitely something special. The peace and privacy I used to feel when I rode in the Santa Cruz mountains are one of the things that got me into road cycling.

After working on fit, I wanted to address some technique stuff. We worked on gear selection some during the first hour of the ride, and I think that was helpful. I also showed Alair how to climb and descend out of the saddle, things I think everyone on a bike needs to be able to do effectively, and one-footed and really fast pedaling exercises. I think that a lot of cycling technique is very intuitive once the rider has been exposed to the correct way to do it, but some things just don't occur to people. I can't imagine descending something steep and not putting my pedals in 9 o'clock and 3 o'clock and getting low over the top tube, but when I first started riding off-road, someone had to tell me to do that too. Watch a triathlon and you'll see a lot of people who can ride 150 miles before breakfast and still don't descend well.

By the time we were doing goofy pedaling exercises, we'd already turned around and were heading west toward Kendall again. I was hoping to keep the ride to somewhere around three hours, so we turned around after heading east for about an hour. It felt like it took significantly less time to get back to Kendall from the furthest point of our ride, but I didn't confirm that with a stopwatch or anything. We rolled through Kendall and then headed up SR-547 toward North Pass Road, which is reputed to be a very difficult climb.

I can say a couple of things. North Pass Road is very beautiful. It has rolling terrain and some climbing sections really are a bit steep. But nothing is long, there are harder climbs inside the city limits in Seattle, and the people who whine about how difficult it is might have an easier time if they rode their bikes more often. Anyway, Alair didn't have to stop on any of the climbs. She actually may not have stopped until we started descending something big enough that I thought we might have reached the top and stopped her myself.

I'm quite proud of how the ride went. Alair brought a ton of grit and determination, and I'm sure she'd have been able to finish the ride based on that alone on race day. However, I think that I've helped her arrive at a more comfortable bike fit, more comfort with her shifters and how to use them to get the bike to help her, better descending technique and a little better pedaling technique. I can't make someone else faster, but maybe I hope I've been able to remove a few of the obstacles that were preventing her from expressing the faster cyclist she already was. I like to think I made the sport a bit more fun for her too.

I think cycling has the potential to be a fun and joyful activity for most people. I think that the first steps in helping someone become stronger cyclist, especially for someone just starting out or getting back into it are to make sure they're not fighting the bike - it needs to work, and fit, and any really bad technique issues should be addressed. Everything else is details.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Shopping for a Beater Bike

A coworker of mine mentioned today that she was thinking about getting a bike, as an alternative to waiting for the bus. I think it's silly to wait forty minutes to go six miles, and it would be great for her to do that. Which brings up the problem of what to buy and where to buy it.

I'm a big fan of the $100 beater bike model for getting from A to B, running errands, etc. etc. I have a $100 road bike; one of my roommates has a hybrid he got for even less, and I think it's great to have something that does a job perfectly well and that I can leave locked outside. I can also do stuff like mount a rack and a set of full fenders on it and keep my "good" bikes set up in a more dedicated sporting trim.

When I shopped for a beater bike this time, I ended up buying one from a guy down in Tukwila. I shopped for it on Craig's List, looking for frames close to my preferred size, because the trip to Tukwila was enough of a pain that I didn't want to have to make multiple trips and test-ride multiple bikes if I could avoid it. I wouldn't recommend shopping on Craig's List to someone who doesn't know their size for that reason. To my mind, that person needs to ride a bunch of different bikes and choose their favorite. That means a shop, or at least someone who buys and sells a lot of used bikes.

Unfortunately, shopping for a used bike anywhere is problematic. There are a few places here in Seattle, though, so maybe I'll make a list for her and let that be my evangelism for bike commuting for the month.