That Old Black Top Magic

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Cycling Special, March 1997

That Old Black Top Magic

If you're racing, touring, or just toning up, a few road-ready tricks can help you do it better
By Andrew Rice

Your Tutor:
Fred Rodriguez, 23, won the 17-stage Fresca International Cycling Classic last year and finished third in the CoreStates USPro Championships. He now rides for Saturn, America's top professional team.
Ask anyone with shaved legs and an Italian-made wool jersey, and he'll likely tell you that fitness riding, racing, and bicycle touring aren't even members of the same sporting species. Pride of pursuit aside, though, it's clear that there are many more similarities than there are differences--and a distinct core skill-set necessary for all. Thus we bring you the following four interdisciplinary maneuvers, each of which will come in handy whether you're spending a week soaking in views of the Green Mountains or just an hour trying to prove that you're still faster than your sister.

Riding in a Pace Line
Yes, it can be a bit unnerving. Get over it. Whether you're racing in a criterium or just looking for a breather while touring, drafting requires about 15 percent less energy than riding solo and thus is an absolutely essential skill. To benefit from a partner's slipstream, however, you must constantly hover within 12 inches of his rear wheel. How do you fight the urge to maintain a saner distance? The key is to look straight ahead at all times. Let your eye wander to the gap between your front tire and the other guy's rear, and you're sure to fall back or, worse, ride right into his back tire. If you do find yourself gaining on the person in front of you, sit upright or drift slightly to the side of the slipstream, letting the wind drag slow you down. But be sure to keep your legs pumping so you don't lurch when rejoining the line.

Say it with us now: efficiency. First, to ensure that you're in a low enough gear and won't have to change midsprint, downshift by two cogs in the rear before you stand and hammer. Next, grip the handlebars in the drops and rotate your wrists to the outside to flare your elbows, which gives you a stronger command of the front end for leverage. Then, when you jump into your sprint, rock the bike to the opposite side of the foot you use for your first downstroke, and build tempo with the bike going back and forth until you hit a speed you can hold for several hundred yards. Look down the road and keep your legs churning, concentrating on maintaining a steady, metronomic rhythm.

Power Climbing
Forget that purist blather about keeping firmly planted in the saddle--unless you happen to like excruciating monotony. Powering up a hill standing allows you to rest the muscles you've been taxing and lets you feel as if you're actually getting somewhere. As with sprinting, the key is to rock your bike, albeit moving much slower and with a different body position. Start by placing your hands just behind your brake levers. Keep your shoulders parallel with the handlebars, stand up tall, and synchronize your breathing with your stroke to help set a steady pace. Focus on pulling each foot across the bottom of the stroke and driving your knees toward the handlebars. If your breathing begins to outstrip your cadence, sit back down and shift into an easier gear before trying it again.

Letting Go
Sure, riding mano-a-nada seems easy. But can you do it long enough--and with enough stability--to make it a useful skill, giving you time to stretch a cramped back or consult a map while pedaling along uninterrupted? For this, it comes down to speed: You have to be going fast enough to let momentum take over. First, settle into a steady pace, riding in a gear that requires moderate pressure: You don't want to have to rock your hips to turn over the pedals, but you also don't want your knees to be churning wildly. Pick a focal point about 50 feet out, and then start hammering, concentrating on keeping your knees in tight. Sit up with a deliberate movement, and voilÞ--the centrifugal force in the wheels should keep you upright. And the wonders don't cease there: By sitting back and placing most of your weight over the rear wheel as you continue pedaling, you can actually steer with nothing but subtle hip movement.

The Well-Packed Pannier

Using your bike as a two-wheeled RV requires a bit of forethought. It means facing up to an age-old conundrum: The stuff you'd like to take along on a tour inevitably weighs more than the bike itself. Short of hiring a sag wagon, here's how to bring most of it with you.

1) Economize, don't skimp. Most panniers have the capacity of a medium-size backpack, so you'll have plenty of room for a tent and stove and even such luxuries as a foam sleeping pad. Beyond that, save space creatively, letting a cooking pot double as a plate or steeling yourself for freeze-dried chow on consecutive nights. To free up yet more room, strap your sleeping bag directly to the top of your racks, wrapped in plastic.

2) Pack wisely, Grasshopper. For stability's sake, load your panniers with the heaviest items at the bottom. But before you start, line them with trash bags to keep the contents dry in the event of rain. Store all breakable items on the right, since you'll be laying the bike the other way--opposite the drivetrain--when you stop to rest. Lash your panniers to the seatstays with nylon straps (they tend to flap around annoyingly on rough surfaces), and pump your tires to maximum capacity to offset the extra weight. Finally, be sure to bring spare bolts for your racks--if you lose one and don't have a replacement, you'll be hiking to the nearest hardware store with your panniers on your back.


Photograph by Jeff Kausch

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