Tuesday, December 16, 2008

In Green: Riding With Legends

Although I would personally prefer to ride outside, I was on the rollers again today because of the deep freeze that has Western Canada in a death grip. An arctic air mass is moving across the Prairies is bringing iccccy temperatures and blizzard conditions. The combination of strong winds and heavy snow has led to a Blizzard Warning being issued for southern Saskatchewan including Saskatoon and Regina. Icy temperatures are forecasted overnight and into Tuesday for Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Calgary is expected to reach -36 with the wind chill with Medicine Hat forecasted to reach -46 with the wind chill overnight.

It is just about impossible to get any ‘quality’ base training in this kind of weather on the bike or even on skis. On days like this it is easy to see why enthusiast can agree that the intense Winterpeg months are ideal for indoor cycle training. Everyone seems to have their personal favorites. The majority of people will likely train on a stationary bike at their local health club, while the hardcore will have an indoor trainer setup in the basement with their own bike attached to it, a watt meter and video games with Lance’s latest and greatest programmed and ready to go. Both are very common. While modern technology can be very useful, one of ‘the best methods’ of indoor training is also the most simple. In my personal opinion, rollers are ‘the best method’ of indoor training. They are also the original methods of stationary training. They will help too improve your fitness level, cycling technique, and prevent you from dying a slow death from the unending dullness of watching paint dry.

It might sound odd, but rollers make it possible to actually ride a bicycle indoors without being stationary or moving forward. I have a 2 stationary bikes (Reebox Studio Cycles), a wind trainer with a power meter, and a Mag trainer I use for warming up before races. However, unlike these types of trainers, rollers do not attach to the bicycle frame, and the rider must balance him or herself on the rollers while riding. Loose attention for 1 second and you join the Crique Du Soleil.

Rollers normally consist of 3 drums or "rollers" (2 for the rear wheel and 1 for the front), on top of which the bicycle rides. A giant rubber elastic connects one of the rear rollers to the front roller, causing the front wheel of the bicycle to spin when the bicycle is pedaled. If the front roller is not spinning you can not steer the bike, and steer you must. The spacing of bicycle rollers can usually be adjusted to match the bicycle's wheelbase. Generally, the front roller is adjusted to be slightly ahead of the hub of the front wheel so the as the bike rocks back and forth ever so slightly with each pedal stroke you don’t go flying off the front (which you occasionally do anyway).

When you first try rollers they suck! Actually when you first try rollers You Suck’! The balancing of the bicycle without riding off the front, or crashing off the side, or just getting on the stupid bike is, to say the least, a challenge. However, unlike riding a completely stable stationary trainer, or a somewhat stable and fragile mag/wind trainer (i.e., no resistance, and apt to break if you really hammer) you’ll find that a rollers workout requires hyper focus. I do not want to overstate the case however. You will hear people going on about ‘bicycle’ racers use rollers to "finely tune their balance" bla bla bla … drafting bla bla bla… or the close quarters of a peloton etc. Personally I think this is stretching it a little too much. The problem is that other than helping develop balance, rollers do little to simulate a real world training experience. It is more reasonable to say that once you graduate from the initial period of learning to actually stay on your bike, rollers have ‘about’ the same systemic effect (minus hill training and sprints) as road riding. So what could rollers do for you?

1. Improved pedaling efficiency and spinning: but only if you suck to being with
2. Better bike handling: same as above
3. Decreased boredom and monotony in training: in the beginning, but sadly you can become habituated to anything.
4. Use of your own bike and, therefore, proper positioning
5. Test out a new position/setup with a very close approximation to real riding
6. Get the out of the freezing, crazy insane cold!
7. Other?

The biggest advantage over and above this brief list is those rollers magnify just how much you actually suck. You think you pedal well, but you don’t. You think you have good balance, but you don’t. You think you have a great sprint, but You Suck! Try doing a full on sprint at 70 km (with max resistance) out of the saddle on your rollers. You will die… or at least topple over to one side. Once you accept that you are not quiet as great as you believed you were you can get down to the business of improving.

The biggest obstacle to using rollers is learning to ride your bike allover again. By necessity the learning curve is very steep. I learned how to ‘mount’ my bike by placing the rollers in a very narrow hallway when I lived in an apartment, then move to using a door frame when we moved into the house. The idea is there is a nearby wall for support when you fall, and fall you shall. By using the wall and ‘bumping shoulder(s)’ you can quickly right yourself and continue training without mishap or interruption. I never did but it is probably a good idea to wear a helmet on your first few attempts at mastering the rollers. To make your first outing (in the basement) somewhat easier remember to: 1. focus on one point a meter ahead, rather than looking directly down at the front wheel (is that how you race your bike? Stay the hell away from me!) 2. Momentum is your friend (err ok this is not actually momentum because you are not actually moving anywhere but do it anyway) – keep the speed up, stay in a higher gear, and keep those wheels spinning (i.e., smaller steering corrections produce) 3. Whatever you do, stay off the breaks!

The rumor is that there is going to be some rollers racing or “Gold Sprints”. My understanding (never actually having attempted such a crazy but obviously insanely fun event) is that two bikes are propped up side by side on the rollers. Each racer is connected to a large clock like speedometer indicating who is kicking whose ass. The first to push the hands of the clock one full circle wins. Match sprints by any other name. One turn of the clock = 500 meters… not the best training for a cross country rider but what a hoot.

As I was saying it is just about impossible to get any ‘quality’ base training in this kind of weather on the bike or even on skis because it is sooo painfully crazy cold and windy. I prepped for the rollers season by dusting off and lubing up the old beast, setup the fan, heater, bottles, tools, extra wheels, post workout bars, shoes with new cleats, and the ipod about 4 weeks ago. Roller belts eventually break, so I made sure I had a couple of spares on hand. My rollers are not exactly the “Rolls Royce” of rollers but they are quiet, and have 2 fans for added wind resistance. The faster you pedal the harder you work, and unlike the stationary bike, there is never any coasting. Unfortunately, they do not provide huge amounts of resistance and I foresee the day when they simply will not do the trick. With that in mind I ‘upgraded’ from the 48/16 to a whopping 52/16. Only on the rollers!

I spent much of last winter learning to mount the rollers without the aide of the brakes or wall. This is actually a very difficult skill to master, as is riding out of the saddle, sprinting and sprinting out of the saddles on the rollers. I crashed and burned many times. You might have been lead to believe that the biggest downside to rollers is crashing head first into the floor, wall or TV. I call this incentive! On the stationary bike you could have a nap without falling off. The roller demand attention. The only thing keeping you upright is the constant rhythm of your pedaling and your balance. Everyone’s first experience with rollers is pretty much the same. It feels like your riding on glare ice. I’ve heard that you can purchase a fork mount to lock the bike in place…. What’s the point? The thing about roller you have to understand is… in the beginning You Suck! It is important to just stick with it for as long as it takes to adjust. While I can not promise that rollers will make you a smoother, stronger, more efficient rider, they might not even allow you to work on skills and technique. Then again, if rollers were good enough for Eddy Merckx, Lucien Buysse, Ottavio Bottecchia, Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil, and many others legends of cycling surely they are good enough for me.

1 comment:

  1. great post dave - rollers... tried them at hal's place... i became the entertainment for the evening.