Better bicycling basics

by Raymond Parker on September 20, 2010

in Cycling, Health, Technical, Training

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Comfort is King

The most common causes of new cyclists’ difficulties can be traced to two easily solved problems:

  • Improper bike size/adjustment
  • wrong gear-ratio choice

These two problems are often combined.

This article is not aimed at riders of BMX or “trials” bikes built for performing tricks (the latter often completely lacking a saddle), though these are commonly seen with knees scraping earlobes. But if you are a leisure or commuter cyclist looking to improve enjoyment and efficiency, read on.

With a reasonably well sized bicycle, proper saddle height can be estimated by simply resting your heel on the pedal at the 6 0’clock crank position and adjusting the saddle until your leg is straight. Now you will be able to apply full mechanical advantage to your pedal stroke.

Proper handlebar height and distance from the saddle is a bit more tricky, but should be based on comfort, not style. If you feel too stretched out, have your local bike shop fit a shorter stem. Too confined? Install a longer stem. Don’t attempt to shorten excess bike length by jamming your saddle forward.

For more detailed sizing and fitting tips, see the VeloWeb BikeFit page.

Nothing will detract from happy cycling more than pushing an inappropriate gear.

Again, this article assumes you have a range of gears to choose from, though If you are a single-speed/fixed gear disciple and you’re struggling, perhaps it’s time for a change of cogs and/or chainrings.

Make sure multiple-gears are functioning over the full range.

The most common gearing mistake I observe is the use of a ratio too high for terrain, causing the rider to pedal too slowly. A higher gear that is harder to pedal produces more distance per revolution. Measured in “gear inches,” it is represented by a larger number, say 90 inches, compared to a low gear, around 30 inches or less. The combination of a large chainring (front) and small cog (rear) produces a big (high) gear. Lower (small) gears combine smaller chainrings with larger cogs.

There is a misconception that slaving over a big gear will return physical benefits equivalent to the pain endured. I have discovered how tenaciously many cling to the idea, when presuming to offer on-road advice.

“I’m trying to get a workout!”

While it is true that performing the equivalent of heavy-load squats will test one’s quads, have no fear that spinning faster will rob you of fitness. Cyclists’ legs should be supple and fluid. Neither commuter or endurance athlete needs the track sprinter’s gargantuan thighs.

As a guide, it is best to pedal at a minimum 80 RPM on the flat and try to stay above 60 on hills. On long climbs, you may want to vary things by standing occasionally. When you stand, gear up; when you sit, gear down.

Bicycle computers with cadence functions are available, but it is easy to count RPM. Find a quiet place to practice. Simply count off 40 or so revolutions of your legs over 30 seconds (choose a point, like when your knee reaches 3 O’clock). Change gears until you can maintain that cadence comfortably; resistance should be moderate. Get used to correct cadence.

Following this advice over distance will provide all the exercise the recreational rider needs. When in doubt, choose a lower gear; your knees will thank you.

Bike Fitting Formulas | Gear Calculator

{ 5 comments… read them below or add your spin! }

Harold Bridge September 21, 2010 at 3:41 pm

Gargantuan thighs on sprinters?
I think Queen Victoria has very nice thighs.
Remember The Italian (name?) who took Eddy Merckx’s hour record?
He trained in Mexico for 3 months by riding uphill on 54×12 until his heart rate peaked, then turning round until his HR returned to normal and then repeated. In the afternoon he was on the velodrome spinning.


Raymond Parker September 21, 2010 at 9:45 pm

Harold, maybe you’re right. Commuters should incorporate hill repeats in their routine. 54X12? Hmmm.


Garrett Kryt November 21, 2010 at 5:38 pm

That interval training was developed by Aldo Sassi for Francesco Moser’s record attempt. You guys probably already know this though.


Raymond Parker November 21, 2010 at 6:49 pm

Actually, that’s a bit of cycling trivia I didn’t know. Thanks Garret!

I do know that “Fartlek” sessions–the first form of interval training–was developed in 1937 by Swedish coach Gösta Holmér.


Conor Ahern April 21, 2011 at 9:56 am

There was a piece of advice given on bike position: “Never copy Sean Kelly’s position!”


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