Where the feet go, you must follow

If you are just starting to adjust your cadence, it can take a few weeks to start spinning your legs a little faster to reach that sweet spot of 90-105rpm. The payoff in efficiency is worth it, but how are you going to get your body used to this new motion? Start with your feet.

Everyone knows how to pedal a bike – you just press down on the pedals, right? Well, sorta. With time lost at the top and bottom of your stroke, you will be lucky to be applying power one third of the time. Imagine your foot is moving around a clock from noon, through 3pm (maximum power) down to 6pm (no more stream). Try this to boost your cadence, especially when climbing. Pretend you are scraping mud off the bottom of your shoes. As the pedal comes to the bottom of the stroke, around the 5-6pm point, pull back to continue applying power from 5 to 8pm. You will engage new muscles and share effort between legs. It won’t double your speed, but can help give you a little boost, especially when you just that little kick to get over the crest of the hill.

One thing to avoid is too much ankle movement. Most cyclist ride with their foot flat to slightly pointed down. For a while I tried lifting and lowering the end of my foot to get a little extra leverage, and instead picked up some mystery strains. Biking ain’t running, and you can’t get a boost from pedaling on the tips of your toes.

Be Mindful

Over the next few postings, I would like to explore how you can achieve a better relationship on a bike. Ideally you will spend a hundred hours or more per year riding, which is a long time to stay clipped in, pedaling, and swathed in Spandex. So if you are more comfortable, you will enjoy your time.

Your goal is to become more mindful when you ride. Ideally you won’t even need to think about shifting, standing, turning, and all the little things you do. But before you perform at an unconscious level, you need to think about how you ride and what you can do to improve. You should start with optimizing your cadence.

When I taught my son to ride, his first goal was to balance on a moving bike. I took off his pedals and training wheels and had him coast, rolling down the slight grade on our dead-end street. With this skill mastered, or at least not crashing, we then worked on powering this contraption. I put the pedals back on and soon he was riding up and down the block.

Once you mastered this level for a single speed bike, you wanted to ride further and faster, so you upgraded to a multi-speed bike. Your body is most efficient when you pedal at a narrow range of speeds, so the gears allow your engine to drive this machine up and down hills at a wide range of speed. The rate that you pedal is called the cadence and is measured by counting how many times one leg goes around. An experience cyclist may have a cadence of 90-105 rpm. New riders pedal slower, 70-80 rpm, but this is less efficient and will hold you back and possibly cause joint injury.

No one is going to count pedal strokes on the road, so invest in a computer that automatically measures this. Use your computer’s cadence display to let you know when to shift, just as a car’s tachometer can tell you when to change gears. Soon you know implicitly that when you feel like your legs are flopping around, your cadence might be too high so shift to a harder gear. When you are grunting trying push up a hill, your cadence is too low, so shift to an easier gear.

Your goal for this coming week is to dust off your bike, go for a ride, and upgrade your computer to help you shift early and often.

Strangers in the night

It’s 4/20, which in Massachusetts means the Boston Marathon. What does this have to do with cycling? Around 2009 someone decided that they wanted to bike the route, but not get caught up in the Monday madness. The Boston Midnight Marathon Bike Ride was born.

This was my first year participating. Most people take a train from Boston out to Southborough and ride up to the Hopkington start, then roll into town. As a suburb guy this is the wrong direction so I partnered with Jeff S from Team Lick Cancer to ride from his house in Hopkington into Boston, then back out. This is one of the most bizarre rides I have ever seen.

Some of the hundreds of riders wore costumes, or even just went a little overboard with lights and glow sticks. As a result, we were relatively safe as there were so many people all lit up. (Plus it was a Sunday night so a lot less drunks on road!) The temps stayed around 40 the whole night under a dry and moonless sky.

The first few miles are downhill so I was glad I overdressed. Jeff and I passed a lot of riders, manly because we didn’t want to be in a crowd in the dark. Before we knew it, we were in Framingham, then Wellesley. A group of girls cheered us and filled bottles. At 1am!

By the time we made it inside Rt. 128 we were towards the front, but there were always riders ahead of us, visible by their little red blinky lights. In Boston we saw people leaving the bars at 1:30am – Monday is holiday for many people. Soon we were at the finish line taking selfies. Then a quick pancake breakfast and we turned around for the ride back.


Since this was not a mass start event, there were riders scattered across the whole route, still headed into Boston, some running quite late. There were also runners headed in both directions, pounding away on an ultra-run. Cars occasionally passed us all the way back to the starting line, which was a little scary when Jeff’s battery stopped 2 miles from the end. Luckily I had zip-tied 3 headlamps on my helmet and had 5 more lights and 4 reflectors. We did a nice Long Slow Distance ride, 57 miles at a talking pace, all before 4am. By 4:45am I was home, showered, in bed, and a little dazed. Even made it into work.

Would we do it again? Heck yeah! If the weather is dry, and hopefully a little warmer, see you in 2016!

Don’t listen to me

Cycling is a broad spectrum sport, with dozens of little niches for every type of person. The magazine covers show road racers charging up a mountain road, MTB riders flying over spectators, middle-aged tourists visiting exotic countries, and much more. I’ve never done any of these but still read the stories inside looking for inspiration. The trick is to decide what is right for you, right now.

Take shoes for an example. I have purchased at least a dozen cycling shoes from Avocet, Reebok, Sidis, Carnac, Shimano, Specialized, and more. The Avocet were the best though they were before the era of clip-less pedals and were mainly a flat soled sneaker. This month Bicycling magazine touted on the cover, “The Best Superlight Road Shoes”. Should you follow their recommendation? At $350, probably not. Last year I went to Cycle Loft who have sales reps who focus just on bike fit and especially shoes. This guy had been trained by a manufacturer in California, however he brought out probably a dozen pairs from many companies. My problem is that the damn Italian shoes from my local bike shop were too narrow and after 100 miles my feet were numb and I had to end the ride. In the end I bought shoes by that California company (the same one who one the Bicycling test) but I bought based on comfort. The top of the line shoes had a better fit system, but the ones I bought just felt better.

Moral: don’t believe everything you read, not glossy magazines, Internet blogs, or even your favorite bike shop. Find someone with a lot of experience who spends time getting to know what you need, and can make a recommendation based on experience and training. Those shoes are exquisite, and I’m not telling you who made them, as they probably won’t be right for you. Go to a shop with well trained men and women who will listen.

What are you doing for the Boston Marathon?

I’m always a fan of “different”, just to get out of the usual rut. Here is a real turn of event: The Boston Midnight Marathon Bike Ride – find it on Boston Magazine and Facebook.  The basic ride departs at midnight from Hopkington and follows the Marathon route into Boston. In town you can enjoy a 2am pancake breakfast. Boston residents will take a train out to Hopkington to start the ride, then wobble back home after their meal. Suburban types like me will do the basic ride, have a mid-ride meal, then ride back to Hopkington. I’ve never done this so it is a big mystery.

Calling this a planned ride is perhaps a bit generous, with a variety of people starting and ending at a spectrum of locations. Dig out all your lights and come join us. With the hundreds of people predicted, most any lighting will do as the roads will be deserted. You may not need a lock – someone commented that with a 100 bikes piled around the Boston Common Coffee Co, on Washington Street at 2am, locks may be optional.

Oh, and don’t call my phone Monday. There is a 100% chance of morning grogginess.

Andres and Mt. Hamilton

No advice today, just a quick shout-out to my friend Andres in Sunnyvale. Hard to believe but he crashes worse than me and is banned by his wife from road riding, except with me. Talk about the bad leading the worse!

Last Friday he took me up Montebello Road in Sunnyvale, a steep little climb that averages about 10% for 5 miles. Good warmup. Late that night we poured over maps and web sites, looking for a challenge for Saturday morning. We settled on Mt. Hamilton which has a few more miles of climbing, however not as steep. To make it a little more challenging, we added Quimby Road, a real nasty one too!

20 years ago I did the same loop, including the big Q. This bad boy starts with some 7-9% sections for a few miles. This Saturday morning I followed Andres, who somehow is amazingly strong on a road bike even though limited to an exercise bike the rest of the year. Close to the top of the hill, the road leveled out a bit and I almost passed him. Until I saw IT. There was a WALL in front of us. We both dropped into our lowest gears and were soon standing up, pulling on the handlebars, struggling with the 13-14% grade for nearly a mile. At the top I stopped for a banana, but Andres was fine, only having had 2 cups of coffee for breakfast. The 7% grade up Mt. Hamilton felt almost flat in comparison, until I bonked.

2015-04-11 09.43.25

We rode for 35 miles, over 3 hours. I had breakfast beforehand, a Gu, banana, a cereal bar, Gatorade, and nacho cheese crackers, and at least 3 bonks. Andres had his two coffees and kicked my butt. Another great ride!


When are you going to make this your best year?

Riding a bike involves balance. Lean too far to one side and your spouse complains you are never home and you miss your kid’s soccer games. Lean the other way and you won’t have trained enough causing misery on the big ride you have been looking forward to. So how can you fit in this new obsession without disappointing your current ones?
Sadly, you already have a time sink – your job. Just driving there consumes 5-10 hours a week. Here are some commuting ideas. The sweet spot for bike commuting is 30 minutes or 10 miles. Less than that and you are still warming up when you pull into the parking lot. What should you do? In the immortal words of Supertramp, “Take the long way home.” My new job is only 3 miles from home, almost walkable. So I am planning to ride a few hills before starting work.
My buddy Jim has a 25 mile commute, too long, eh? But it is into Cambridge so riding is not much slower than driving. So he bikes down the Minuteman Bikeway, dodging strollers and in-line skaters instead of the cars on Rt. 2.
If your commute is much longer or is mainly highway, taking the bike adds a big chunk of time. Plus, what if you need your car during the day at work? When my office was 30 miles away, there was no way I could bike 60 miles a day. Solution, reverse the commute! I drove in, biked home, then rode in the next morning and drove home. The 2 hours of cycling was tolerable once a day.
On the weekends, the solution is to ride early. Here in New England the sun is up at 5am in the early summer. I left for a 60 mile group ride at 6am and was home by 10. Heck, I could just about squeeze in a century and be home by the time my family was eating lunch. Still plenty of time to take my kids to afternoon soccer games and music lessons. Evening movies were challenging.
Quick tip: Lay off the juice. If you are riding for less than an hour, commuting, or in cold weather, just drink water. Skip the electrolytes, energy drinks, and other additives. You probably don’t need the calories, won’t sweat enough to bother with the extra salt, and will easily recover with your regular meals. Save the special stuff for long hard workouts.
Chris Spear


Who will make this your best year?

Hopefully you have some goals by now, so how are you going to achieve them? Delegate!

Regardless of your goal, you will need to get in shape, and pedaling that the LifeCycle in the gym while watching CNN is never going to do it. Hopping on your bike and hitting the road will only take you so far. You need to ride with a group.

There are many benefits to working out with others. First, it is motivating. I am a member of Team Lick Cancer, about 100 people working together to end cancer by supporting the Pan Mass Challenge and the Jimmy Fund and Dana Farber Cancer Institute. This means that every weekend a bunch of buddies are hitting the road. They are very social making the rides more enjoyable. If I miss the ride, I’ll feel bad about letting them down.

Next, the best way to get stronger is to ride with someone stronger. On your own, you will probably train in “the death zone” where your maximum heart rate is 80-85%. Isn’t that good enough? Sorry, you need to push yourself into the 90s to really make a difference. Even if your weekly group is made of people at the same general fitness level as you, someone will attack the next hill, and you need to go after them. Sprint for those town line signs a few times and you will be exhausted tonight, but your fitness will start to increase. Better yet, you will make friends and chat away the hours, until the next hill rolls up.

Another great source for training partners is all the local clubs. No, I don’t mean Studio 54, I’m talking about the Nashoba Valley Pedalers and the Charles River Wheelmen. They have a full calendar of rides for people of all abilities. For about what you spend on innertubes you could join a club and have a spectrum of rides to choose from.

Lastly, riding in a group is more efficient than riding solo. If you just want to burn calories, who care? When you want to join a large ride like a century, the miles will pass more quickly in a pack. Plus when you flat for the third time, it is nice to have some sympathy and spare tubes from other cyclists.

Training tip of the week – think LSD, Long, Slow Distance, not £sd. Leave the heart rate monitor at home and just log some miles. The most important thing to condition is your backside. Talk with friends, make sure your bike is working well, and burn calories with low effort.

What is your best year going to be?

What will make this your best year on a bike? Come up with some goals of what you want to accomplish.
– Will you be stronger and able to finish a ride faster? Pick a particular ride and lay out a training schedule that lets you ramp up to the distance.
 – Will it be new toys or new destinations? Personally, while I enjoyed my Cannondales and the Seven, and even a compact crank, it is the trips that make the best memories for me. Corny ones like the time I paid 25 cents to ride across the Ohio river into West Virginia and then got lost trying to make it to Pennsylvania on back roads. The cable-stayed bridge I rode with Bob and friends in Batam, Indonesia, a decade before the Zakim opened. Lava fields on the big island of Hawaii that looked like broken Oreo cookies. I’ll cover some ideas for travel in a future post.
– If you might want to lose a few pounds, I’m the wrong guy to ask for advice. If you are riding consistently and pushing yourself, the fat should be turning into muscle.
My goal for 2015 is to train long distances to prepare for the PAC Tour. So far I have yet to break 50 miles as of April Fools Day, but the long days of spring and summer are not here yet. Riding across the US has been my goal for at least 20 years.
Quick idea of the week – carry your cell phone in a Zip-Lok bag. Newer phones are supposed to be water resistant but soaking an expensive piece of electronics in the brine running down your back is just asking for trouble. Leave a spare $20 in the bag so you are ready for action. Maybe even include a Dunkin’ Donuts coupon for when you bonk.

Chris Spear

Where’s the carrot?

Perhaps the most important question you can ask is “Why?” As in, “Why is the sky blue?” “Why does Hans Solo act funny around Princess Leia?” or, closer to home, “Why will this be your best year on a bike?” Before you set goals, you need to know where you are headed. When I started biking, my goal was to ride 6 miles, then 10 miles, 20 miles, until I worked up to a 50-mile half century in Tiverton, RI. The raw miles were good for a few years, then I realized that biking was selfish, and helped no one but me, so I signed up for the Pan Mass Challenge. Now my training in May, June, and July had a purpose, conquering cancer! If you get nothing else from reading this blog, think about how you can help others.

After a dozen years of riding the PMC, I set my sights higher. My lovely wife took us to the Alps in 2003 to see [deleted] win the 100th anniversary Tour d’France and ride these amazing mountains. The next year I spent a week in Colorado chasing peaks, then a few years later watching the Tour in the Pyrenees. All these gave me motivation to train hard and have my best year. Lately the Harpoon B2B (Brewery to Brewery, now the B2VT) has been the big carrot for me to chase, except that this 150 mile challenge comes on Father’s Day, leaving the rest of the summer and fall without a purpose. Worse yet, in 2014 Jim and I did a great training  camp in Tucson, riding 400 miles in a week, however this was in March, so after getting in great shape, I returned to the cold and snow, and an indoor trainer. Ugh!

For 2015, my riding buddy Jim has talked me into the perfect challenge, the PAC Tour Southern Transcontinental ride. Four weeks of human powered transport, pedaling from San Diego to Savannah, 2870 miles, over 100 miles a day. Best of all, it is mid-September to mid-October so we have most of the season to train.

Everyone has their own goal, every year brings new challenges. Why is this going to be your best year on a bike? Let me know!

Lastly, my tip of the day. The snow is melting here in New England, so the salt, water and grit are gunking up your bike. The quick and dirty solution is a fender. My favorite is the SKS X-Tra Dry Rear Fender, a cheap solution that easily mounts to your seat post. Also known as a F*You fender as it keeps me dry, but does nothing for the guy riding behind me.

Chris Spear