Monday, June 14, 2010

Basic preventative bike maintenance:

How to stay safe and enjoy the ride

Every cyclist, from the most dedicated professional to the most leisurely amateur, stands to benefit greatly from a bit of forethought and planning when it comes to riding. While the list of factors that can hinder or benefit you on the bike is nearly limitless, three key ideas will have the greatest impact with the smallest investment for almost all riders: fitting, tire pressure, and component upkeep.

Before Buying:

A good fitting will benefit you most if you plan for it while buying a bike. This is because you (obviously) can’t adjust the size of your frame once you buy it. Still, even if your frame size is a little off all is not lost! You can fiddle with the height of your saddle, the length of your cockpit, (essentially the distance between the handlebars and the saddle) the height and angle of your handle bars, and in some cases the positioning of your pedals. All of this can help reduce, (but not eliminate) the negative effects of a miss-sized frame.

If you’re buying a new bike you can quickly and easily get the best sizing advice from a qualified bike shop. Most of them have a way to measure your ideal frame size on site, and frankly that’s the best way to do it. If you cant find a shop that will do this for you, then just McGuiver it yourself at home. There is a great guide for how to do this on If that doesn’t strike your fancy, then just do the “straddle test.” Stand over the top tube and make sure you have about 1.5-2 inches between you and the bike. You want just enough distance between you and the tube to ensure that if you fall off the saddle and land on your feet you won’t be squashing anything… important.

After Buying:

The rest of the fitting process is much more complicated. There are quite a few guides on google, but the ideal solution is to have a qualified professional do it for you since it’s nearly impossible to fit yourself. Do your homework and find out which local shop is the best choice, then go get a fitting done. Fittings can be quite expensive so either show up ready to spend some money, or spend some time finding a good step-by-step on google and take a run at it yourself. Just remember to mark the existing positions before you make any drastic changes, (just in case you don’t like the new ones) and tighten everything up really well once you’re done!

You can also save yourself a whole lot of time, effort, and money with a bit of regular upkeep. Keeping your tires pressurized appropriately and your chain clean and well lubricated will improve your bikes efficiency, safety, and lifetime.

Best practice is to clean your chain every time you ride in the rain, and every few hundred KM at least even if the weather is good. A dirty chain will damage your gears and cause it to seize, jam, and skip with time. Lubricate it every few hundred KM, or after riding in really heavy rain.

Cleaning your chain is as easy as pinching it with a cloth and rotating the pedals. I kneel behind the bike and lift the saddle with my shoulder to get the back tire off the ground, then pinch with my left hand and crank with my right; it takes about 60 seconds to clean the chain this way. Do whatever works for you, and if you have an A-Frame or some other way to mount the bike so the pedals spin freely then that’s even better.

Applying lubricant is simply a matter of buying good product (just ask your local bike shop what they suggest) then cleaning the chain and applying 1 drop of lubricant to each link, (apply to the top of the chain, rotate the pedals a bit so new chain is accessible, repeat) then cleaning it again. Good lubricant should run you around $10 for a little bottle, and that should last you for quite a while. Lubricant is a minor investment for a huge payoff.

Tire pressure is arguably even more important. You can get a handheld tire pressure gauge (I personally don’t trust the ones on cheap pumps, and good pumps with an accurate gauge are fairly expensive) for like $10 or $15, and a pump you can attach to the frame is about $20 for something really basic. Those two things alone will make riding much easier, smoother, and more enjoyable for you. They will both last forever unless you are really careless.

The min/max PSI will be printed on your tire, so check that and inflate as required. The lower the PSI the less efficient the tire, but the more stable the ride. For instance, I ride at 120+ PSI in good conditions, and 110 PSI in the rain. The lower PSI lets more of the tire touch the road, so there is less of a chance I end up falling on my face in bad weather. Not all tires require the same PSI, so make sure to check your current tires before inflating. Check the PSI after every ride if you can, or at the very least every 100km or so. Also check them if you leave the bike sitting without riding it for more than a few days. Tire pressure takes less than 5 minutes to check and adjust before each ride, and it will result in a much smoother, safer ride that you will enjoy doing way, way more.

Ultimately, a bit of forethought and around $50 in equipment will result in you enjoying your ride far more, and your bike lasting much longer. A well fit bike will feel better to ride, and be much easier on your body at longer distances. Spending just a few minutes before and after each ride will keep you safe, and maintain your bike in good condition.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Am I working hard enough?

One of the most frequent questions I hear asked with regards to cardio is “how do I know if I’m working hard enough?” Despite the number of times I’ve heard people ask this the answer is almost never the same.

The biggest hurdle on the road to answering such a question is personal fitness level. Everyone’s fitness level is unique in a multitude of different ways, and training goals should be equally varied. As you spend more and more time training your own experience will quickly trump any advice you can find in a blog or forum post, but beginners can benefit greatly from some general guidelines regarding early training concerns.

The Novice
(Or, “The Couch-to-5k’er”)

To be concise: just finish. If you’re brand new to cardio training you should have one goal and one goal only; to complete your desired run time without having to walk. 20 minutes is a good starting goal, so aim for something around there. Once you can run 20 minutes without stopping, you can start to worry about speed and distance. Until then, just work towards getting comfortable with an easy 20 minutes 3 or so times a week.

The Beginner

Once you are able to spend 20 minutes running 3 times a week you can start to concern yourself with distance a bit more. Evaluate your goals and pick a distance to train for. Most people start with 5 or 10km runs as their goals, since many “fun runs” (which are popular reasons to start training) are one of those two distances.

At this point your training does not need to be too structured (although it you work better with strict structure that’s fine, and there are about a million training plans on google you can use) as you should mostly be trying to simply add a bit of distance each week until you can complete your target run without stopping. Once you can run at least 5km without a walk-break it’s time to switch gears a bit and take our first real look at intensity.

The Intermediate

Once you’re able to comfortably run 5km you can start to concern yourself with just how fast you’re running, and how hard you’re working. Up until now we’ve mostly been working on getting you comfortable with regular cardio, and creating a base fitness level so that you are physically ready to start working your body a bit more strenuously.

If I had to put your new training philosophy into a single ‘googleable’ phrase I’d pick “anaerobic threshold.” Your anaerobic threshold is the point at which your body switches from aerobic to anaerobic work. That is to say, the point at which your body can no longer supply sufficient oxygen to your muscles to allow them to continue working at their current level of intensity. If you’re below this threshold you can keep working as long as your fuel stores, (and willpower!) hold out. Train above it and it is simply a matter of time until you are forced to stop due to a lack of oxygen (and/or an excess of waste) in your muscles.

What does this mean? To put it simply, it means run as hard as you can maintain for the entire duration of your run. Finding the sweet spot where you can keep working through the burning legs and lungs takes time, so don’t try and force it too soon. The delicate balancing act of playing chicken you’re your anaerobic threshold requires practice, and paying keen attention to the feedback your body is giving you. Take your time and work towards maintaining that just-under-the-wire feeling for longer and longer. It takes a lot of guts, but more than that it required patience and care to avoid hurting yourself.

Not a runner? Not a problem!

The same principals apply to all forms of cardio, just with sport-specific time and distance goals. Practice the kind of cardio you enjoy and want to get better at, and with time you will see similar cardiovascular growth. Swimming, biking, running, hiking, whatever works for you; it’s all good!

Just remember, start by getting comfortable with a moderate time frame for the exercise. Once you feel good doing a bit of work a few times a week, find a good goal distance for your sport. Once you can finish that distance you will have a reasonably resilient body, and you can start looking at intensity to improve the quality of your workouts.