Bike Tips for Real People, from former bike shop owner Eric Hutchins, aka @trimon29, aka Bubba-mon
Eric resides in Houston, TX and works as a chemical engineer. But his heart belongs, in no particular order, to his wife and five kids/step-kids, bicycle, a bass guitar, the Arizona Cardinals, and a crusty old surfboard. He hails from St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. Oh yeah, and he’s my husband.
I love bike shops. To me they are what books stores, art museums, or clothing boutiques are to some people. I step in the door and into another world. I could spend hours (and sometimes do to Pamela’s great frustration) just wandering around aimlessly looking at all the cool stuff and talking to the staff.
Bike shops can be intimidating to the inexperienced though. Some are staffed by people that ignore you unless you are covered in tattoos, have calves as big as normal people’s thighs, can average 28mph for a century, and wear an Italian cap backwards. Others will feed misinformation back to you and tell you exactly what you want to hear just to get your ass out the door on an overstocked bike that has their biggest margin, costs too much, and doesn’t fit.
Did I say I love bike shops? I did, and I do, because the REST are owned and staffed by nice people that care, want to help, and have a passion for doing something really cool. These people don’t care if you don’t know the first thing about bikes. They don’t care if a long ride to you is two miles along the boardwalk on your cruiser. They don’t care if you are overweight, on a tight budget, or may not ever enter a race in your life. To them you are just someone that is interested in joining a club, a fraternity, a religion, and you are welcome. They are ME. Welcome aboard.
A while back, in the spirit of trying to add something positive to the Twitter world, I put out ten tips for the novice cyclist interested in riding a bike on the road. If your name happens to be Armstrong and you live in Austin, they might not apply (but some do anyway, Lance). I hope they help arm you for the next time you head to a bike shop or out on the road.
Without further ado and in no particular order of importance:
Bike Tip #1
Bike fit is key. You will go faster and farther on a cheap bike that fits than a high priced one that doesn’t. This is where a good bike shop is so important. I am a HUGE advocate of finding expert help that you can trust in this area. This is not something you can just read up on, or trust your other novice bike friends to help you with. Some shops have incredibly sophisticated systems for fit, some use crusty old guys like me with a calibrated eyeball. Either way, take the time and do this right. Also, avoid this very common mistake: don’t go to a [brand names interchangeable] Trek bike shop, get sized as a 56 cm, and then go on line and buy a 56 cm Fuji expecting them to be exactly the same. They are not.
Warning, this next comment is my personal opinion and may be subject to some debate from other experts. I recommend that if you are borderline between sizes, you choose the smaller size. First of all you can make a bike “bigger” by raising the seat, moving it back on its rails, changing the angle and length of the stem and number of spacers under it. However, you can’t make a bike much smaller. In addition, by simple logic, the smaller frame is lighter. The smaller frame will also be easier for you to “handle” (ride on curvy roads).
Bike Tip #2
Don’t underestimate the importance of seat height and cleat position on the shoe, in power transfer and prevention of injury. While this is related to fit, it can still be screwed up even if you have the right size bike. GO TO A SHOP AND GET HELP.
But, in general, your pedal cleat should be under the ball of your foot, and positioned (left to right) such that your shoe is not rubbing on the crank arm as it rotates by. The angle of the cleat should be such that your feet are parallel with the bike, HOWEVER, be careful. Everyone’s anatomy is different and it is possible that your natural comfortable rotating position has your toes pointed slightly in or slightly out. Getting this right is very important to reducing risk of injury. The main thing here is that as you rotate the pedals (do this in a training stand with no resistance so you can FEEL your legs move through pedaling circle), you don’t feel like your natural movement is being “bound” in one direction or the other. There is something called “float” used in the description of cleats and pedals. Float is a design feature that allows your heel to move left and right, while your shoe is clipped in the pedal. Increasing float means that there is more freedom of this lateral movement of your foot while still clipped in. In general this is a good thing for injury reduction, however many elite riders prefer less float so that ALL of their energy goes directly to the pedal.
When setting your seat height consider this (once again get in a stand and have someone watch you): with your feet clipped into the pedals and your foot at the bottom of the stroke (closest to the ground) and your foot parallel to the ground (don’t point your toes) your knee should be nearly fully extended, with just a slight bend. When you turn the pedals as if you are riding, imagine a metal rod through your hips, that rod should stay parallel to the ground all the way through your pedal stroke.
When you are out riding in a group, look for that person whose hips are rocking back and for as they ride along. This is how you now know that their seat is too high (and that they probably will have a terrible rash at the end of the ride and not know why).
Bike Tip #3
Fixed (non rotating) weight reduction is over-rated. Most riders carry more excess weight in fat than they can shave off bike, save your money.
For all but the very best riders, shaving a few grams of weight (particularly on parts that don’t spin) is a waste of money. You will often feel pressure (at shops, fellow riders will say, “Dude my bike only weighs 13.5 lbs what is yours, like 18 man?”) to spend money on titanium and carbon fiber parts (or whole new bikes) to reduce your bike weight in tiny increments. Before you do that, here is a test: reach down towards your belly button and grab a hunk of flesh/fat; if that weighs more than the part you are going to replace, WORK ON THAT WEIGHT INSTEAD and save the money to buy good quality food.
If you WANT to spend money on your bike to reduce weight, start with things that spin. Weight reduction in wheels, pedals, gears, and cranks will have the most impact on your performance.
Bike Tip #4
The quality of bike shorts makes a huge difference; don’t scrimp on them, you will suffer. There are tons of choices when it comes to shorts, and this is NOT the item to bargain hunt for. Lousy stitching will chafe you, and poor quality material won’t last more than a few washes. Consider the shape of the pad. Pay attention to what it’s made of and its thickness. These elements have a big impact on comfort. The “number of panels” refers to the number of shaped fabric pieces that make up the short. More is typically better. Money-conscious Pamela wore a low-end bicycle short one year on the Melon Patch Tour, and after 70 miles she was reformed. You can’t get her to ride with anything but Sugoi now.
Bike Tip #5
The 169-gram torture saddle makes your bike cool but doesn’t make it faster. Pain reduces focus and effort in most humans.
I have seen (and sold) bike seats that look like a medieval torture device. When your bike is in the rack at the transition area it will look really intimidating with that sleek carbon plate and no padding, but when your ass hurts so bad that you hobble like a bull-rider during the run I will come trotting by with a smile on my face.
A seat is “fixed” weight. It means almost nothing in terms of speed. Be comfortable.
Bike Tip #6
Tire pressure is huge for minimizing flats and reducing effort. Own a good floor pump and use it before you ride, every time. Many flats are caused by not having enough air in your tires. If your tire is underinflated and you run over a stone or a big crack in the road, the tire flattens out and the tube gets pinched against the rim ,causing a puncture. In addition, the more pressure there is in the tire, the less the tire comes in contact with the surface of the road. This reduces what is called “rolling resistance” which is actually a surprisingly big factor in reducing effort for a given speed (or going faster for the same effort).
Keep the tires up to the maximum recommended pressure for that specific tire (some of us even go a little higher than that especially during races). It is nearly impossible to get enough pressure in your tire with a little frame mounted hand pump; those things are just for emergencies to get you home after a flat. Buy a floor pump.
Tires lose air over time. You need to re-inflate them often. Don’t worry if your tire pressure drops by 10-20 pounds when it sits in the garage for a while, this is normal, and it is not necessarily a leak.
Bike Tip #7
Check before every ride: tire pressure, brake release levers closed, wheel spindles secure, helmet, sunscreen, flat kit, and emergency money. Make yourself go through a routine every time before you ride. Like I mentioned before, air pressure is key. Once you become experienced, you can tell pretty well what your tire pressure is simply by pushing down hard on the tire with your thumb.
Most bikes (unless they belong in a museum) have a lever that opens the brake caliper up to allow you to remove or install the wheel without totally taking apart the brake. It is a really common oversight to forget to put that lever back in the closed position after repairing a flat or after taking your wheel off to fit your bike into your hatchback car. If you don’t close the lever, the braking will be either really poor or not work at all. You do not want to find this out as you are heading off the road towards an embankment. Same thing goes for the wheel spindle lever (used to clamp the wheel in place). My most common nightmare is flying down a steep technical mountain road, and then realizing that I forgot to tighten my front wheel clamp.
You should always stick a few bucks into your saddlebag. You never know when you might need to make a call or buy a drink because your water bottle flew off when you hit a pothole.
Bike Tip #8
Ultra narrow tires shave off seconds in a 40K ride, while flats add minutes. My father-in-law and I once lost a 40-mile bike race in Baytown, Texas because I flatted out on skinny tires. Not worth the risk. I see a lot of people riding on ultra thin 18mm tires in circumstances that don’t make sense to me. Yes, these tires shave off a tiny bit of rotating weight and arguably they are more aerodynamic as they have a narrower profile to the wind. However, the very thin tires have a higher likelihood of flatting. So over a 40KM bike course, they may save the average rider 10 seconds (yes, that little), but the risk is a flat.
How long does it take you to change a flat? In the best of circumstances I can do a rear wheel in about two minutes, and I have done it more times then I would care to count, so to me, it just ain’t worth it.
What really makes me chuckle though is when the aerodynamic argument is brought up by some huge guy with terrible body position and a too-loose jersey flapping in the breeze while he rides along on his 18mm tires. I want to pull him aside and say “Buddy, if you just got down in the drops once in a while and got a jersey that was the right size it would have 50 times the positive effect that those tiny tires do.”
Bike Tip #9
Riding like a fool on congested roadways hurts all of us, so if you can get to quiet roads do it. If not, obey all traffic rules. It drives me nuts when I see a rider cranking through downtown traffic, ignoring traffic rules, sprinting like he is in the time trial of the first stage of the Tour. These people, and there are unfortunately many of them, seem to think that
- The rules of the road don’t apply to cool people like them.
- That vehicle drivers should telepathically know which road rules the cyclist is going to ignore and anticipate his reckless moves.
- That all drivers have perfect vision, don’t get blinded by the sun, don’t have other obstacles to avoid aside from him, and, when in doubt, should sacrifice their vehicles to avoid hitting him.
We NEED drivers to like us. We need them to want to share the road when necessary. We WANT them to vote for legislation that helps us. We want them to agree without protesting to be inconvenienced when roads are closed for our races. Some people I have talked to believe that they have the right to chose to ride wherever they want and as recklessly as the want to because they think they only hurt themselves. THEY ARE WRONG. They are hurting all of us by encouraging drivers to stereotype us all as ignorant and selfish.
If you live in a high traffic area, if at all possible, throw your bike in a car and drive somewhere where there is not as many cars and sharing the road is easy. We live in Houston, and we love to take our bikes out to Brazos Bend State Park. At the very least, please be careful, obey the road rules, and bend over backwards to be courteous to the drivers. If your normal bike workout time over your favorite route is 20 seconds slower because you braked and yielded to a turning car, it’s not going to kill you. But if you don’t ride that way all the time, then someday it might.
Bike Tip #10
Each time before you clip in, close your eyes and take a minute to thank those that make it possible to do what you are about to do. Most if not all of you who will read this blog have circumstances that allow you to ride a bicycle because you want to, because you enjoy it, and because its good for you. I have had the opportunity to travel quite a bit and have seen firsthand conditions of hopeless abject poverty for a staggering number of people. There are people whose entire lives are built around trying to scrape together enough for their family or themselves to eat that very day. There are huge geographic areas with no paved roads and nowhere to ride even if circumstances allowed it.
All of us that have the opportunity to ride are blessed and lucky. People have fought and died for the lives we live. People have worked hard, paid taxes, sacrificed and volunteered for the things we now take for granted. Service people like police officers, public works employees, fire and emergency service workers, and many others spend their days doing jobs that make our rides possible. There are people we love that are around us taking care of things in a manner that allows us the time and opportunity to do the thing we love to do. We owe a debt of gratitude. We need to always acknowledge that and keep it in our hearts. We need to stand on a soapbox and broadcast our appreciation every chance we get. We need to be grateful.
And one of the groups we should thank? The owners of your small, local bike shops.
I am a HUGE advocate of supporting local bike shops. I encourage you to identify the shops in your area, visit them, talk to the staff, figure out the one where you fit in and then support it with your business. Bike shops are not all the same, and they will not all fit your personality. Find the one that does, lock the address in your GPS, and support it with your business.
Yes, you can typically buy bikes and components for a few bucks less if you by online, but every time you click “add to cart,” you are pounding a nail in the coffin of your local shop. There will be times when you need to run out and get a tube for that ride in the morning and if we do not make good choices, that shop will not be there. The margins on bikes are very, very small and with the increasing volume of business going to the internet “stores,” margins and volumes have also shrunk dramatically on the accessories that used to keep the shops alive.
Pamela wanted me to add that you can still contribute to the “Eric Hutchins bicycle shop ownership recovery fund.” Make the check payable to her.
Please feel free to post questions in the comments, ask me on Twitter (@trimon29), or Facebook.
p.s. Isn’t he awesome?