Long ago when dinosaurs still walked the earth (OK, the early 20th Century) and derailleurs were only sketches on paper napkins, cyclists rode fixed gears everywhere including the Alps and Pyrenees. The bikes were all made of steel tubing, aligned on a marble table and silver soldered together entirely by hand. Today, such bikes are considered objects of art, but should we look further at what they might do for us in the 21st Century?
By John Howard
Old bikes, with their “Columbian” and Reynolds souls should be ridden and ridden hard in events such as L’Eroica (a world famous retro bike ride on the white roads of Tuscany) and the like. I intend to explore this in later writings, but for now let’s leave the nostalgia in the museum but borrow the retro-but-chic single speed from the annals of history, as well as other options for two-wheeled transport.
Can a modern version of the 19th century fixed gear bike improve our road cycling? What about an up-to-date duel suspension MTB? And what about the old “bicycle built for two”? These questions beg for answers so I thought I would share a few tested observations from my ongoing work with hard working, eager (albeit a bit innocent, at times) riders who unknowingly become lab rats in pursuit of obtaining the illusive podium.
Rest assured, the modern single-purpose road bike is still the odds on choice, but let’s re-examine three bikes and what they can do for us to make us faster, more efficient, better bike handlers.
Although I’m not suggesting that you own a quiver of bikes (that’s your job to convince your spouse!), different machines offer the potential for greater gains. Value-adds include enhanced pedal stroke efficiency which means less fatigue and less chance of injury as we age. Change offers an opportunity to scale up riding skills in ways you may not have imagined. Not to be forgotten is the fun element, helping you ward off the occasional doldrums of training. Consider the fact that you are at once the bike’s engine, pilot and passenger. This broader mix of variables WILL open the window of enjoyment and improvement for you.
Fixed Gears: Tech vs. Tech
Old-school technique, or better use of high technology training?
With a fixie, you learn – first on a trainer, or far better, a pair of Krietler old-school rollers – to pedal in quicker circles at a higher rpm range than may seem possible on first attempt. I’ve watched experienced riders struggle with pedestrian cadence numbers in the low 100 range, and then make precipitous gains of say 140-160 rpms in just a few weeks of focused roller training and “pedal stroke sculpting.” The significance of a faster turnover is the improvement in your effective pedal stroke. Old-school, but still effective.
Using a more modern analysis method, observing use of a fixed gear on the polar graph of the Computrainer Spin-Scan program allows us to diagnose the stroke in terms of both inch pounds of torque and percentage of power for each individual side. This will reveal flaws in the circle that directly relate to muscle imbalance. While this diagnosis is generally true of any bike, the fixed gear is an especially “pure” indicator of pedal stroke flaws. For example, low torque figures—usually on one side—indicate tight, weak or disconnected hip flexors on the corresponding side. Equally problematic are the all-important external hip rotators.
About 90% of the cyclists I work with have rotators that resemble strung piano wires. We address these issues with a schedule of improved range of motion stretches (ROMS), targeted muscle strength training, (TMST) and therapeutic body work, called Dynamic Motion Therapy (DMT). Nearly all flaws in a pedal stroke can be corrected or enhanced with this approach. These modalities result in a more balanced torque curve and a more equal percentage of power making the stroke noticeably more symmetrical.
This is especially important for Masters cyclists who sometimes over-train themselves into problems with backs and knees. If ignored, these issues can escalate. Trust me, I see it way too often. From a pure performance perspective, pedaling with even slightly more efficiency you will expend less energy to make the bike go the same speed. More energy saved means more energy later. Essentially, faster and more efficient rpms translate into less effort needed, a more fluid stroke, and a reduced heart rate.
A fixed gear, or even a single speed freewheeling bike will force you to manage your improved cadence in order to match the speed of your multi-geared training partners. Inevitably this will make you faster, and more efficient broadening your potential for leveraging more power.
The Mountain Bike or Cyclo-Cross
Creativity & Crisis Management…Really?
Continuing with the perspective of fun, nothing, absolutely nothing can compare with the experience of bombing down a single track with your buddies exploring new trails or a wilderness environment far removed from the daily, noisy crush of the street. You will pick up quickly the nuances of various trail conditions such as hard packed turf, soft, loose, wet and muddy single tracks, sudden drops and sharp ascents.
My personal favorites are the West Coast specialty of decomposed granite and the East Coast slammer of slick, off-camber tree roots. As you probably know, riding these conditions will inevitably make you a better bike handler. Fore and aft adjustments in weight distribution on the saddle and how those subtle changes alter your climbing potential.
Translating this to the road, even a few centimeters of body adjustment above the saddle can drastically alter emergency stopping time & power should a car pull directly into your path. Practicing these skills on a MTB will make your road experience that much tighter.
Technical diversity is like lifting free weights. As you continue, you become stronger and also more adept at balance and coordination of body mass resulting in a mastery of a crisis-adapting style of riding, resulting in quicker reactions to potential danger situations. Improved technical expertise is directly transferable to the road.
The time to ride your MTB is anytime your interest in riding begins to stagnate. By changing your cycling focus to “enjoyment mode” you will lighten your training. By exploring the creative process of riding the off-road you are finding new stimulus through a dissimilar variation.
Turn your MTB into a utilitarian vehicle like I do and use platform pedals and ride with regular shoes for commuting. The platforms can actually change power point distribution, effectively adjusting the dynamics of the stroke, providing muscle relief and the potential for a better rounded and more forceful pedal stroke.
While these off-road experiences satisfy the hedonistic joys while upping the ante on the skill base, they do nothing to help humanity at large. Should you care? I think so, so let’s explore.
Speed, Strength & Social Awareness
In terms of physical benefit tandems are a means of strength training with a friend or significant other. Strength training can have many meanings and I’m sure you get my drift. The bonding that takes place on a tandem is immediate and satisfying. Some of us just like to go fast, perhaps much faster—on flat ground—and enjoy the camaraderie of collective power generation while providing pace for the singles, which may put you at the head of the pack if you have a strong stoker.
It is certainly a means of building relationships but consider the greater possibility of providing the power of vision for a non-sighted person. What that means for you is unforgettable, very personal, and deeply gratifying. The effective combining of two blended power strokes can actually provide you with a clearer handle on your true priorities. As a charter member of the Blind Stoker’s Club and owner of a very cool 1970 Jack Taylor racing tandem I will tell you it will bring smiles to both your faces and what is that worth?
I promise you that riding more varied bikes will keep you riding year round and make you a better rider. You don’t get better by parking your bike for any length of time, and having more of them to ride will simply drive your motivation higher and add variety and spice to your life – turning you, let’s hope, into a permanent fanatic.