I like to fix bikes, because it gives me a chance to work with my hands and occasionally work on “something real”. Thus I sometimes get to talk to people and check out their bikes.

Now, to be honest, the bikes (and their riders) are often in a terrible state. The bike may not be entirely—what bicycle shops call—tuned. The bike is very very often poorly adjusted to the rider. And sometimes the rider expects too much of himself.

This triad can be quite detrimental to using the bike. (In fact I come across a lot of neglected bikes.)

Hence, here are a few things, you can do to change your bicycle experience from sucky to nice.

  • The most common problem I see is that the saddle is at the wrong height. A new rider buys a bike and starts riding. One week later, there are complaints about knee issues. This is because the saddle is too low. This puts a lot of stress on the tendons. To set the saddle at the right height, get on the bike and put the ball of your foot on the pedal. At the bottom of the stroke (when the crank arms are vertical), your heel should be BELOW the ball of your foot, but no more than 1″.) as your leg locks out and you sit normally on the saddle. If you can’t do that without blowing your Achilles tendon, your saddle is too low. Of course you will never lock out your knees when actually riding. This is why the heel should be below. Under normal riding conditions, your foot stays more of less parallel to the ground. This will set your saddle position at approximately the correct height. You an try to adjust it by a few millimeters up or down to find something that works better for you.
  • Once you got that fixed, lets look at simple riding technique. Many only apply force on the down stroke. This may apply even to folks with fancy clipless pedals. Doing so means that the pushing leg not only acts to push the pedal down and the bike forward, which is good, it also must work to lift the “lazy” leg, which is bad! You will find you can increase your speed with little effort if you “take some weight off” the pedal on the pedal which is going up.
  • Most modern bikes comes with tons of gears because tons of gears sell. You got to be aware of “cross-gearing”. Cross-gearing happens when the chain is not running straight. You may think you have 21 gears if you have 3 rings in front and 7 cogs in the rear, but effectively you don’t. The gear run and shift best if the chain runs more or less straight. In fact a single-speed bike will have a perfect straight chain line which is completely silent and close to 100% efficient. For multiple gears, this means that if you use the lare chain ring in front, you should be on the smaller cogs in the rear. For the middle chain ring in front, you should be on the middle cogs. And for the small chain ring, you should be on the largest cogs. Effectively, you have far fewer gears than 3×7=21.
  • Few people maintain their bikes. As a result the chain starts squeaking after a few months. Now, some people just spray it with WD40… Do not under any circumstance use WD40 on your bike! (There’s only one place on a bike where you can do that: Removing handlebars!). You need to get a cyclone chain cleaner, some citrus cleaner and some chain oil. (Link to amazon for the one I use. Note, I use Park Tools because a) They have a wonderful book which tells you exactly which tools to get; and b) Because of their reputation, you can easily buy and sell the tools used.) You can get the citrus cleaner and the chain oil at your local bike shop. Go with Park Tool’s generic lube or get some triflow. First clean the chain with a solution of water and citrus cleaner using the cyclone (or a similar gadget from another tool supplier). If you’re used to using a brush to clean the chain, you’ll be amazed how well the chain cleaner works. Wipe the chain off with a rag. Now, put 1 drop of chain oil at the pin on each side for each link. Yeah, I know; takes 10 minutes or so, but just do it. It may be easy to squirt oil all over the chain, but that just means it’ll collect too much dirt and you’ll have to clean it again next week. Clean the chain once a month. [Experts may wish to use different chain oils depending on whether they ride in a dry or a wet environment. I haven’t really gotten to that stage yet.]

  • Also, just like keeping your tires properly inflated will save gasoline, keeping the tires properly inflated will save energy. On a bicycle, running underinflated will be felt directly. It is perhaps no surprise that running underinflated on your bike will wear down the tires faster as well. The good news is that new tires will be substantially cheaper. Maybe $25 instead of $250-$500.

The post script concerns the rider. Frankly, most modern people are in a terrible physical shape. Yet many expect to be able to get on a bike and start a daily 6 mile commute immediately. Or they figure they can easily ride 20 miles. This is true to a point. You can do that to a point similar to how most recreational 5k runners can run a marathon without preparation. Except! They will be in (tendon/joint) pain for days after.

A good gauge for what you can expect on a bicycle is to multiply the distance you are able to run by 4. If you can run two miles a day, you have the cardiovascular work capacity to bike 8 miles a day without overtraining (you get tired and cranky). If you can do a 4 mile run without complications, it will not be a big deal to ride 20 miles.

Of course this is not a direct translation since different muscles and tendons are involved. What I’m getting at is the fitness level. Most people have a good idea of their fitness level when it comes to running. Few seem to have the same intuitive understanding when it comes to riding. Besides, endurance and stamina are not the same thing!

Hence: Start slow! Don’t add more than 10% to your last longest ride when going longer. Don’t add more than 10% to your weekly mileage. If you follow this simply rule, you’ll be fine.

Originally posted 2010-07-20 00:39:16.