If you’ve been spinning indoors due to inclement weather, you’re probably ready to jump at the first chance to take your ride outside. Or maybe you’ve always wanted to, but wondered what you need to know to make the transition. Lindsay Hyman is a sports physiologist at the United States Olympic Committee who coaches Team USA cyclists and triathletes. 24Life asked for her insights on outdoor cycling — from maximizing comfort to minimizing potential for injury.
COMPETITIVE VS. CASUAL CYCLING
First, we wanted to get to the heart of the matter. Is competitive outdoor cycling completely different than casual outdoor cycling? Hyman says there are more similarities than differences. While competitive athletes may take aggressive, aerodynamic positions on their bicycles for greater performance, it doesn’t mean the athlete is comfortable — and some degree of comfort for the duration of a ride can mean the difference between victory and injury. Hyman adds that there are Union Cycliste Internationale restrictions for safety, designed to ensure road competitors don’t sustain knee or hip damage. Yet, Hyman says, anyone can enjoy cycling. “It’s a great sport not only because it improves overall health, but also because it’s got a social component,” Hyman says. “You don’t have to be the best cyclist — you can enjoy it as a hobby. Or, you might find yourself caught up in the culture that’s very savvy about the technical aspects of cycling.”
TIP: New to cycling? Start with indoor equipment, and if you enjoy it, make your move outdoors. However, Hyman cautions against making your first outdoor ride a really long one — whether you’re a beginner or a veteran.
SET UP FOR SUCCESS
The three crucial elements to set your bike up for a good outdoor ride are handlebar height, seat height and fore-aft distance. Hyman notes these elements are important for indoor cycling as well, adding that set-up depends upon individual physiology, such as the length of your legs, torso and arms.
1. Start with a good neutral handlebar height. Hyman says that’s usually plus or minus an inch relative to seat height.
2. Seat height is important, but there isn’t a hard and fast rule. Hyman says if you’ve found your comfortable seat height on an indoor bike, position your outdoor bike seat the same way. “In general, you don’t want to be reaching for the pedals, for example, by tilting your hips or extending your legs to the point that they’re nearly straight.” Hyman notes that a seat that’s too low or too far forward can contribute to pain below your knee cap; a seat that’s too high can be one cause for pain behind the knee cap.
3. Your fore-aft position (how far forward or back you are over your gear bracket) should be neutral. Hyman explains what that means: “Imagine a plumb line from the tip of your saddle to the crank where your pedals meet the bike. Your neutral position could be anywhere from ‘zero’ to a little farther back from that line.” She adds, however, that there are variables such as the angle of your seat tube or the length of your saddle that might require you to bend the “rule” for fore-aft position.
TIP: If you have shoulder or back pain, try raising the handlebars. If you’re more flexible, have a longer torso or want to take a more aggressive position for your ride, try adjusting the handlebars to be lower than your saddle position.
POSITION YOURSELF FOR COMFORT AND CONTROL
Your position on your bike may change, depending on whether you’re planning to ride for an hour or ride a “century” (100 miles). Hyman says that regardless of your goal, you need to be set up and positioned to be comfortable and in control. Poor bike position can reduce your handling skills and even lead to injury. The basics for positioning for good handling:
1. Your reach to your handlebars should not be too long.
2. You should be able to get to your brakes quickly, whether your hands are on the top of your handlebars, by the brake hoods or down in the drops (where your bike’s handlebars curve down).
TIP: When your hands are by your brakes, your hand position should be the same as when your hands are resting at your sides. When your hands are on the drops, your thumbs should be at the 1 o’clock position. With proper hand placement (which may require adjustments to your bike set-up or your position on your bike), you won’t have numb hands or shoulders, or a sore back.
INSIGHT: Moving your hands from the top of your handlebars to your brake hoods to the drops progressively lowers your center of gravity, putting it closer to the ground for better handling of your bike.
THERE’S MORE THAN ONE PERFECT PEDAL STROKE
Hyman points out that terrain is the determining factor in ideal pedal stroke — and it might not be what you think. “We’ve found that mountain biking requires the smoothest pedal stroke, because the terrain is irregular — if [cyclists] pedal with a chaotic, or choppy, up-and-down motion in loose gravel or sand, they’ll lose control of their rear tire.” Conversely, track riders must maximize their up-and-down stroke for power.The difference occurs in the upstroke, she explains. You produce the greatest force — thanks to weight and gravity — when you’re at the top of your pedal stroke, with your foot anywhere between the 12 and 3 o’clock position. But gravity works against you at the bottom of your stroke, when your foot’s between 7 and 10 o’clock. She says, “To maximize their power production, track cyclists focus on the push down for the most force, while mountain bikers smooth out their stroke by pushing down with one foot and ‘unweighting’ the other foot.”
OUTDOOR CYCLING MAY PRESENT GREATER MENTAL — NOT PHYSICAL — CHALLENGES
We had to ask. Hyman says indoor cycling has the potential to be more challenging, physically, because you can adjust the resistance on the bike’s flywheel — something that you can’t change on your outdoor bike.However, outdoor cycling presents mental challenges. “Riding outdoors requires navigating not only terrain and weather, but also your ability to handle your bike in those conditions,” she says. “Indoor riders won’t be limited by physical strength when they take their ride outside, but they may find their confidence is challenged.” Whether indoors or outdoors, Hyman is an advocate for cycling — and enjoying the ride.