Fast Bike, Slow Bike
I’ve always assumed the answer to this question: the slow bike gets you fit & you use the fitness on the fast one. Coming into work this morning, I started to doubt whether this was actually a sensible approach; or indeed, if there was any truth at all in it. Let me explain.
I spent a chunk of a few weeks earlier this year commuting to work by bike/trike. I always struggle for motivation during the cooler, wetter months (which are about 9/12 up here!), so was making the effort during February to get some base mileage in. Knowing the effect of Glasgow road-salt on chains and transmissions, I was taking the trike, which is running Sora components, which are less expensive to replace.
On a good day, the commute was quite good fun; moving reasonably quickly and not having to suffer the bus. Less good days, however, meant that I really struggled to keep up with the motivation. Other than not having mud-guards on the front wheels (which makes cornering in the wet quite unpleasant (but is better if you fancy arriving home like an extra from 60’s Paris-Roubaix photos)), there was the pain of lugging 20+kg of bike and luggage up c.150m of ascent in heavy traffic. Being cold and wet and struggling for power & having to overcome gravity was a situation that I’d always assumed to be helpful, in that, if I had the power to get the trike uphills in the rain, then the summer bike should fly come, well, summer. This theory seems relatively sound from a fitness perspective, however, a new piece of information came to light this morning that has changed the way I looked at things.
First commute on the summer bike this morning. About 8kg of rather lovely bike, with a 15mph tailwind and a predominately downhill route was the position this morning & I flew. I am hideously undercooked after a winter of more off than on cycling, but I was turning a 53-15 gear above 90rpm on the slight (1-2%) uphill about a mile from home (OK, I had come off a similar downhill, so this won’t be reliable for power calculations, but is reasonably indicative (oh, there’s also a 650c wheel on the back rather than a 700c, which makes quite a difference in resultant speed)). The decent downhills were less fun since drivers insisted on making me slow down, but the difference struck me as I parked up somewhat breathlessly with a big grin & made me re-consider my previous position about winter commuting.
The difference was that I had really enjoyed the commute and had gone really deep just for fun. & it didn’t really hurt when I went into the red. I was quite unaware of my legs hurting and my breathlessness. I was completely focused on my surroundings and this huge feeling of happiness. I haven’t had that simple joy of moving a machine quickly for a long time & now just want it again and again and again. This is completely different from my late winter commutes when I really had to force myself not to take the bus. The bottom line is that I really don’t enjoy cold, wet, miserable rides uphill on a heavy machine anymore. I used to be a bit more zen about it, but I guess that I’m getting old or lazy or nesh about it now. I was asked if I was turning into a fair-weather cyclist this morning (a breed for whom I have always had great contempt) & realised that I was (so, apologies to any fair-weather cyclists I may have offended!). Don’t get me wrong, I was cold this morning (& had to wear sandals at c.8°C, but that’s a different story), but I didn’t really care: I could always get warm by cycling harder; or harder still!
So the questions… How much of my current attitude is based in the knowledge that I have a velomobile in the post and will, hopefully, spend next winter’s commutes safely cocooned from the rain? & how much of today’s speed is from those winter commutes? & how much fun will I have the next time I get to pedal home uphill into the wind after burning all my glycogen concentrating at work all day? How will I feel on the big climb on day 3 of commuting (I need to get the bus after this to transport things, so this is just a 3 day commuting week), normally, that makes me hurt, so to be successful, the light bike idea means that I need to not-hate day 3-4 climb on way home with tired muscles and tired mind.
I’m looking forward now to my next commute and really not caring about these questions at all….
Day 3 is where it counts.
Having written the above piece 48 hours ago, the theory is coming to be tested. I have a 8 mile commute that’s quite rolling, other than the huge climb on the way home/downhill on the way in. Home into a headwind and up that hill were not un-fun on the past two evenings &, although I was quite quick coming in today, I can feel that my legs aren’t putting out the same power & there’s a slight achy burn when I start to push hard.
So the hypothesis needs tested. If the light bike’s better, I need to have done more in the same time and/or enjoyed even when suffering.
Well, I’ve done 3 and 4 days of commuting in a week on the trike several times this year. I should be fitter and stronger just now than when I last undertook such a thing. My legs are telling me that I have done an awful lot more than I have done in one of those 4 day commuting weeks. Whilst impression or feelings are not really to be relied upon when testing work done, there has been an alarming and concurrent drop off in top end power available that has run in proportion to the sense of work done. This drop-off is clearly quite a lot larger than trike commuting caused if my ability to get up 6 flights of stairs to my office is anything to go by (I had decided that I was going to take the lift for a change this morning, given the state my legs were in, but then saw the big “Do not use” signs & got quite grumpy).
So, it appears that I go/have gone a lot deeper than I have done in comparable situations on the trike, but have I enjoyed it? Yes, but no, but… Let me explain…
I always hate working hard to get back to a standard that I used to have: I find it frustrating & unsatisfying; so I’ve been very grumpy whilst riding this week since I just don’t have the power. Saying that, I’ve actually had quite a lot of fun whilst I haven’t been being grumpy. What I haven’t had, most importantly is a situation where pain and frustration outweigh the fun, which was something all too frequent on the trike. Tonight, however, is a different proposition: the wind is still blowing the wrong way, so I have a headwind going uphill whilst tired….
& the next day
But it was fun. I’m heavy-legged, but happy. I’ve had to get the bus today to transport some things & am feeling remarkably good…
Lessons learned then:
- That the trike is functional and useful; great fun to ride on the flat, but painfully slow on hills. It’ll be fine to use when I’m stronger/fitter, but just now, prob best left in its cupboard for a few weeks (which is probably for the best since, for a variety of reasons, it has no pedals & there’ll be none available for a week or two);
- That I find getting back to cycling far easier on lighter/quicker machines;
- That I work harder on a lighter bike. That is to say that I appear to get more benefit from riding something with less drag and rolling resistance. So, whilst I could go at the same speed and use less energy, I tend to use use more energy than I would on the trike in the same circumstances.
- All of the above means that the quicker machine gets me fit faster, gets me to work faster and gives me a lot more enjoyment in the process.
- That all of the above would be irrelevant is I could avoid long gaps in cycling: fingers crossed for something approaching summer this year then and that the VM means that winter cycling is less painful….
Are fat tyres bad?
Rigid bikes are great: they go faster and are lighter; both of which are traits I really like in bikes (well, in HPVs in general, but that doesn’t quite work as well). If anyone has had the recent misfortune to commute on Glasgow roads, you’ll probably know what’s coming, but I was struck today with how much crappy roads are slowing me down.
After 7-8 miles of crater dodging & loosening all the bolts and screws on my Fujin, I turn onto Baird/Kyle Street (it changes from one to the other somewhere, but I’m never sure where). Approaching from the Royston end, you have a ramp down, followed by a very, very slight downhill. What makes this bit different and worthy of comment, however, is that it has been recently resurfaced. There are similar sections of road in profile, but I am so much quicker on this bit. This morning, I was holding a 53-11 gear at 90(ish) rpm without too much difficulty. In concrete terms, that’s over 10% faster than a similar bit that’s a bit lumpier. I also don’t object to not being shaken constantly, but the speed is more the issue.
I am actually shocked by the difference. >10% faster for the same power input is fairly appreciable. I know that this is a one-off sample & there are other factors at play too, but let’s run with that number for now. I recently swapped the Vittoria Open Corsa CX tyres on my road bike out for 28mm Schwalbe Marathon Supremes. This took quite a lot of commitment & a good deal of prodding (& the realisation that I was going to have to cycle downhill on grass and didn’t want to die on road tyres that skidded at the sight of damp greenery). After nightmares about how slow I was going to be, I was pleasantly surprised at how little difference they made. I now realise that this was probably in no small part down to running fatter tyres at lower pressure with the resultant drop in bouncing on bumpy roads.
I have, however, noticed that Schwalbe now make the Ultremo ZX in 23-406, so I can get a full-on road tyre for the front wheel of my Fujin. Does the above put me off?
Not a chance.
Not a chance.
Narrow, high pressure tyres are so much faster, even when they are objectively slower and puncture more frequently. Right?