Monday, November 30, 2009

A Good Read

In the 1970s and 80s I considered myself quite knowledgeable about bikes and bicycling. I was not actually bike nerd but certainly very close. Then in the 90s I went back overseas and slid way down the learning curve. When I finally returned to the States, I found I had largely missed out on the most recent cycling revolution that accelerated the introduction of new frame materials, brought integrated shifting to almost everybody, explored new theories of fitness, aerodynamics, the concept of power, bike fit and goodness knows what else.

To pull myself back up the learning curve, I talked to friends, pestered bike shops, surfed the Internet and read books. Lots of them. In so doing, I have found three books that clearly stand out above the competition and they all have one common characteristic that is the key to their success. Each is compiled by an editor rather than authored by one individual. This means that no one is claiming to be a world-class expert in every aspect of the subject but rather as an editor has the flexibility to draw together individuals who truly are world-class experts in their own particular field and who write on their own specialty topics.

The first is “High Tech Cycling” edited by the late Dr. Edmund Burke. Burke is one of the world’s preeminent authors of books on cycling and was the U.S. Olympic team’s physiologist in the 80s and 90s. His book truly is high tech and his material is supported by lots of diagrams and graphs. In addition to dealing with the standard topics on bike equipment, body positioning, biomechanics, nutrition etc., he also includes sections of the science of the world hour record and the physiology of professional road cycling. While these latter topics might not affect our daily cycling lives, they do make for absorbing reading and they produce some interesting lessons for all of us.

The second book is “High Performance Cycling” edited by Asker E. Jeukendrup. He is also a recognized authority on physiology for cyclists and has supported many professional road teams and Olympic athletes. Jeukendrup’s approach is similar to Burke’s but is perhaps more comprehensive. His book also has a greater concentration on training, training tools, nutrition and recovery. It is also well illustrated and is possibly a little less intimidating for the mathematically-challenged. Having said that, several of the photos seem to have been included for cosmetic purposes and do not convey a particular message.

The third book is “Zinn’s Cycling Primer” by Leonard Zinn. He is well known to all readers of Velonews as the author of many savvy articles. He is also a respected frame builder, specializing in bikes for riders of above or below average height. Zinn’s book is more conventional in that he does list himself as author rather than editor but nevertheless does freely draw on the expertise of other recognized authorities (including Andrew Pruitt and John Cobb). When I first glanced through the book, I was rather dismissive of it, considering the overall scope way too broad as it includes several sections on mountain biking and bike maintenance; both important topics but too large to include in a road book of just over 200 pages. However, on closer examination, I realized that Zinn does have excellent sections on bike set-up and bike handling that justified my purchase of this book also.

Let’s discuss three specific topics that have changed dramatically in the last twenty years or so. In 1989, Greg Lemond started the last stage of the Tour de France, a short 15-mile time-trial, with a nearly insurmountable 50-second deficit from Laurent Fignon. Miraculously, he won the time-trial by 58 seconds over Fignon, giving him a victory in the Tour by 8 seconds, the smallest margin of victory in the history of the race. Lemond’s historical win would most likely not have been possible without the use of aerobars (already becoming popular with triathletes, but largely shunned by roadies), and he thus ushered in a new phase of professional road racing which many of us aspire to emulate.

The modern era of aerodynamics was started by East Germany in the early 1980s and this culminated in the American "Super Bike" at the ‘84 Los Angeles Olympics. In 1987, Scott USA manufactured the first modern aerobars, originally the brainchild of Boone Lennon. Lemond then brought this technology together in a spectacular fashion with his Tour win. At velocities above 20 mph, about 80% of the resistance on a bike is due to aerodynamic drag. Of this, about one third is due to the bike and two thirds due to the rider. Certainly therefore, selection of aerodynamic frames and components and, more importantly adopting an aerodynamic riding position is critical for any cyclist trying to improve his or her performance and this still holds true for those of us who ride at more modest speeds. Burke and Jeukendrup both address the issue at length. Burke draws on the expertise of Jeffery Broker of the University of Colorado and Dr. Andy Pruitt director of the Center for Sports Medicine in Boulder. Jeukendrup’s sections are written by Jim Martin of the Department of Sports Science at the University of Utah and John Cobb who is now Chief Designer at Blackwell Research. Well worth reading.

We hear many of the riders around us talking about average speed, cadence and heart rate, including resting heart rate and anaerobic threshold. These have become readily available and inexpensive measures by which we assess our performance. We do not often talk about power even though this is the parameter that best encapsulates our true pedaling efficiency. Relatively high cost and weight of devices currently on the market are still discouraging factors, but an appreciation of the principles is useful. For cyclists, power is the amount of energy that is transferred to the pedals per second and is a far superior indicator of exercise intensity than any other measure. It is also directly related not only to the athlete’s inherent performance but also to component selection, bike fit and rider positioning. On the bright side of things, new devices to measure power are cropping up all the time and the technology is becoming more inexpensive and more practical. Jeukendrup’s own section is the most comprehensive of the three books on this topic.

And this brings us to the most critical and yet controversial topic of all: bike fit. At the end of the day, if your bike does not fit correctly it really does not matter whether you have an entry-level $800 bike or a $8000 custom beauty or whether you feel strongly for or against Shimano Dura-Ace versus Campagnolo Record. As well as being a topic of hot debate, it’s also by far the most difficult issue for which to identify and obtain truly expert advice. Most bike shops can secure a 70% solution using various “rules of thumb”, most of which have limited or questionable validity. Examples: obscure the sight of the front hub when the stem length is correct: nonsense. Kneecap over pedal spindle with a plumb bob; applicable for some riders but certainly not for all. Using various body measurements and computer programs such as Fit Kit might get you to an 80% solution. Serotta’s Size Cycle probably gets even better results but where to go next?

The first option would clearly be to scour your town for a bike shop owner/employee or bike fitness trainer who truly knows his or her stuff and who, using their expertise can watch you on a wind-trainer and see what needs to be done. Easy to say, very difficult to identify such an individual. Getting that 95% solution, admittedly unnecessary for most of us, requires time and money to visit with one of the acknowledged masters of the art such as Pruitt and John Cobb. Another, local option would be David Wenger here in Austin. Alternatively try and tap into the expertise of one of the great American frame builders such as Zinn himself, Ben Serotta, Tom Kellogg or Richard Sachs. In the meantime, I believe it is absolutely essential that any prospective purchaser of a new bike needs to be an informed consumer so that he or she can evaluate the advice they are getting. All three books do a stellar job on this subject, with Zinn probably producing the best chapter on fit of the three.