Shift Light

Life is like a ten speed bicycle. Most of us have gears we never use.
– Charles M. Schulz

The BRAT adventures are either addicting and must-do-again events or they are bucket list adventures–one and done.  Because they are connected to an academic program, they also tend to follow an academic schedule.  Each year, we have students cycle out (pun intended) of the program and new ones enter.  The pool of recruits for the “next” ride are usually always newbies.

Beginning with our third ride, we started having repeat riders.  One student from BRAT2 rode on BRAT3.  Two from BRAT3 rode on BRATS4.  One from BRAT3 rode on BRATS5.  And three from BRATS5 rode on BRAT6.  So while some of our cyclists have some experience with long-distance riding, the majority of participants each year are new.  They are not only new to riding as a team across states, but they are also new to the world of road bikes and all the intricacies that come with them.

Not many people are used to riding bikes with their feet attached to the pedals.  Our fleet of bicycles that students use on our rides are all equipped with SPD pedals.  We also have a collection of cycling shoes with SPD cleats.  By clicking the cleat on the bottom of the cycling shoe into the gripping mechanisms on the pedals, the rider is able to use more leg muscles when spinning the pedals.  Instead of only generating power with a single leg when pushing down, a clipped-in rider can push down and pull up with both legs at the same time to generate power.  It is a much more efficient way of pedaling and it invokes the use of a wider range of leg muscles.  However…it takes some time and mental effort to become comfortable with.

To disconnect your shoe from the pedal, you simply twist your heel out and away from the bike.  That motion helps pry open the gripping clamps on the pedal that hold the cleat on the bottom of the shoe.  It is an easy motion once you are used to it, but at the beginning, it can a chore to remember and execute at the proper time.  With your feet secured to the pedal while rolling, you must remember to unclip before you are ready to put your foot down when stopping.  I usually unclip a good 15-20 feet before my planned stop.

I always clip in my right foot first and left foot second after I’m moving and have some momentum.  When it is time to stop, I unclip my left foot first and then catch my weight on the left side of the bike as I stop (with my right foot still clipped in).  When it is time to get moving again, a push down on the right pedal and a shove or two on the ground with my left foot will give me the momentum to get the bike moving and give me time to re-clip my left foot.

Another thing that is different about road bikes is how much higher you position the seat from what is normally done on recreational bikes.  When sitting on the seat with your leg on the pedal and at the bottom of the stroke, the extended leg should be almost straight.  By riding in such a position, there is less stress on the muscles and tendons around the knee and the force is taken up by more of the entire set of legs muscles.  The calf muscles, in particular, get a good workout and the hamstrings do as well–on the up-stroke.  It is good to be high.

These differences can make for some fumbles and bumbles from beginners.  It is common for beginners to have a hard time clipping their cleats onto the pedals–especially without looking down to check their foot position over the pedal.  It is also common for beginners to forget to unclip from the pedal before they actually need to stop.  More than once, I’ve had newbie cyclists roll up to a stop and when they try to put their foot down on the ground to stay upright, they realize that they are attached to the pedal and end up falling over.  It is also a common mistake for newbies to unclip one foot from a pedal but come to a stop with their weight over the other foot–and when they try to pull that foot off to catch themselves and fall onto the ground.  And even a somewhat gentle fall onto a paved surface when you are wearing cycling shorts, will result in a skinned knee.

The third common error when stopping and starting has to do with the seat height.  When the leg is almost straight at the bottom of the pedal stroke when sitting on the seat, it can’t reach the ground when sitting on the seat.  On road bikes, you must come off of the seat and support your weight on the still-clipped foot as you stop and start.  Only when you have momentum and are rolling along should you be on the seat.  When you prepare to stop (or start), you should not be on your seat.  Many rookies have tried to stop while trying to catch themselves on their tip-toes while remaining with their butts on the saddle.

Another difference from recreational cycling involves cadence.  With road bikes, a high cadence is the key.  A constant cadence of 70-90 revolutions per minute is what you should shoot for.  A slower cadence will mean that you are putting more work into fewer strokes for the same result.  A super-high cadence will mean that your body is having to move faster than what it is designed to comfortably do and the amount of power put into any one stroke is too little–it is sub-optimal.  You  also have to realize that when you pull and push on the pedals with both clipped-in legs at the same time, you get extra help from the second leg.  The power demands are shared in both legs and they carry the same rpm rate.  Within the 70-90 rpm range, cyclists are able to find the right blend of power per stroke–the work is put into a lot of revolutions of the pedals with both legs contributing at all times and within a range that the body and comfortably handle.

Another huge lesson that has to be learned involves shifting gears.  Shifting theory is easy in concept, but something that many rookie cyclists have a hard time putting into practice.  Shifting theory goes like this…”When it gets hard to pedal, shift to an easier gear.  When it gets too easy to pedal, shift to a harder gear.”  That’s it!

Additionally, ride in the big chain ring on the front when you are able to go fast–on downhills and with the wind.  Ride in the small chain ring on the front when riding is tough–on uphills and into the wind.  To avoid chain clatter and derailleur problems, don’t ride in big-big or small-small (big on the front and big on the back or small on the front and small on the rear).   When shifting between the front gears, shift over two gears on the back to keep the gear ratios nearly equal.  From there, you can adjust your back gears to make things easier or harder to pedal.  Again, it is easy in principle and eventually becomes automatic once you gain cycling skills and actual experience on the bike.

One of the biggest and most noticeable differences between experienced and novice cyclists is the amount of clunking, clanking, and popping of the chain and rear derailleur while shifting gears.  To minimize wear and tear on the chain and derailleur, shifting should be done with little to no tension on the chain.  Instead of shifting gears while bearing down hard on the pedals, which creates a lot of tension on the chain, lighten up for a pedal stroke to shift without no tension on the chain.  Simply slow down your cadence for one (or maybe two) revolution of the pedals so that you’re spinning the pedals, but your speed is slightly slower than what is needed to keep pressure on the pedals.  In that one revolution, you can shift gears without the noise, clunk, or grinding that comes from a high-pressure shift.  It will help ensure a long life for your derailleur and shifting mechanisms.  This, to me, is one of the easiest ways to tell an experienced from an inexperienced cyclist.

To get the most out of a high-performance bike, get attached to your pedals, spin those legs, raise your seat up, change gears when things are too easy or hard, and lighten up when you shift.  That’s it!

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