Sometimes preparation is all about what you leave behind
In one way or another, we all want to become better cyclists. At the same time, we also want to have more fun on the bike—with the possible exception of triathletes, because if you love riding your bike, then why would you want to run away from it afterward?
Of course, the cycling media has no shortage of tips for how we can better our riding experience, but most of these tips also involve spending lots of money. Either that, or you get to keep your money just as long as you make yourself miserable in exchange. This is the basis of the entire cycling industry: when presented with a choice of doing intervals or spending $2,000 on a new wheelset, the vast majority of riders will opt for the former, and an elite group of wealthy masochists who look like they sprang from a Rapha ad will do both.
Fortunately for you, the best ways to improve your overall cycling experience are both inexpensive and enjoyable. Here are some tips to ensure you never have to read an in-depth article about exactly how many eggs you should be eating at breakfast ever again.
Don't Carry More Than One Water Bottle
I think I first picked this up from the excellent book A Dog in a Hat, by Joe Parkin. In it, he explained that the old-timey Euro pro sensibility is to only ride with one bottle in order to encourage café stops and that you should only carry two bottles when you're actually racing.
This immediately rang true for me. Think about it: if you take $100 out of the ATM before hitting the bar, what happens? You spend $100. Isn't it smarter to take out $60 so you don't overdo it? Of course it is.
Same goes for riding bikes. A single water bottle on your downtube is a great way to help you pace yourself and think ahead. In fact, I've even gone so far as to take the second bottle cage off some of my bikes, and the effect of adopting this approach was two-fold:
- It did indeed encourage me to stop more often, which in turn made the ride more enjoyable and kept me better hydrated than if I'd been sipping warm fluid out of a plastic bottle.
- It saved me like 700 grams, which is the equivalent of like $2,000 in upgrades. Unfortunately I then went and blew the $2,000 I'd saved at the bar, but that's something else.
(And yes, obviously this approach doesn't work if you have no place to stop for water, so if you live in the desert and you think this tip is irresponsible, here's another one: Don't take things you read on the Internet too literally.)
Don't Carry Food
Given my success with the one-bottle philosophy, I then extrapolated what I'd learned to carrying food. In short, don't do it—at least not all the time. Why? Because, again, stopping is good for all the reasons listed above, and the food you eat wherever you do stop will probably be more nourishing and enjoyable than whatever crap you stuffed into your pockets. (If it's not, you need to plan your rides better.)
Plus, when you ride without food, you're more inclined to have a good hearty meal before heading out in the first place. This is important, because some people have pretty wacky ideas about nutrition. For example, did you know there's something called "fasted riding?" It's true. The idea is that if you head out on an early stomach in the morning, you will improve your fat-burning metabolism. Incredibly people consider this a training technique, when it is in fact quite clearly an eating disorder.
If You Do Carry Food, Carry Regular Human Food
As is the case with water bottles, obviously sometimes carrying no food with you is simply unrealistic. I get it. After all, not everybody lives in an area full of cyclist fueling stations where they can clomp around in cleats sipping lattés and lifting each other's bikes. ("Wow, so light!" "Yeah, I removed a water bottle!") Plus, while it's nice to stop, sometimes you just don't wanna.
What you can do, however, is spare yourself the liquid diet (and spare everyone else your flatulence) by carrying actual real people food. Slurping up packets of energy goop like Jeff Goldblum in The Fly is no way to live, and anybody who gets excited about the latest flavor of gelatinous cube or pre-packaged ersatz waffle has become disassociated from his or her palate in a way that is, quite frankly, disconcerting.
Oh sure, this stuff may be portable and easily consumable on the bike, but nature solved that problem eons ago with something called "nuts." If the company that makes your cycling fuel has the word "labs" anywhere in its name, then stop, go back inside, and make yourself a sandwich. Or, if you insist on eating a science experiment, at least consume a successful one like gummy bears.
Systematically Downgrade Your Components
Cycling is about making the most of your energy, and as such we're constantly waging war against excess weight, wind and rolling resistance, and of course that most dreaded of enemies, bottom bracket flex. (Yes, somehow a microscopic amount of bottom bracket flex is supposed to be a meaningful factor on a bicycle equipped with pneumatic tires.) The problem is that we tend to confuse natural exhaustion or our own inherent suckitude with all of the above, which can send a false signal to the brain that it's time to spend money on an upgrade. Even worse, upgrades only lead to more upgrades, and before you know it you're buying $165 "race-day-only" chains and sending them out for customized lubing.
To combat this, systematically downgrade components whenever it's time for a replacement. The truth is that if you ride a decent bicycle it's pretty difficult to find genuinely shitty parts for it, but it's way too easy to spend too much for no reason. The key to downgrading is to ease yourself into it; I've been working my way down from the pinnacle of self-delusion (Campy Record, at my worst) for years now, and as I finally reach the supposedly "entry-level" groups, I can assure you I've never been happier or enjoyed better performance.
All those high-end refinements ultimately work their way down anyway, so stay ahead of the tech curve by remaining resolutely behind it.