Faster #4 – Ceramic bearings…

Ceramic bearings – bearings with ceramic balls rather than steel balls – are a common choice by the top-end cyclists. So, how much do they really gain you?

If I can, I try to figure out what sort of maximum gains you might see when from a specific increase. In this case, we can do a decent job, as we know roughly how efficient bicycles are.

The best data that I’ve found suggests that modern drivetrains are about 95% efficient (though it’s hard to know exactly what they’re measuring). If we could get rid of all the lost, it would be like we increased power by 5%. So, a climb that took us 10 minutes would now take:

600 seconds * 0.95 = 570 seconds.

Which seems like an impressive difference.

Though, from a speed perspective on the flats, it’s not as big of a deal. 5% more power takes us from 15 MPH to 15.3 MPH, or from 20 MPH to 20.4 MPH.

But, we’re not going to get rid of all of that – there’s still some loss in the chain.

Cyclingnews did an article a while back on SRAM’s $190 bottom bracket that claims that it reduces frictional losses from 4% to 0.5%. Note that that also includes some other low-friction design changes and a low-friction grease. That’s gets you up that 10 minutes hill about 21 seconds faster.

On the other hand, Zipp claims that you get 2 watts at 25MPH with their ceramic wheel bearings. The handy Speed and Power Calculator estimates that 25MPH requires 300 watts with hands on the drops, which means you’re saving 2/300 or about 0.6% of your power. Not really a lot of savings there, though presumably you could save that much for each wheel, and gain a small amount of speed. They do note that the savings against the high-quality steel bearings they use on their other wheels is only about 1 watt.

We can also assume that both SRAM and Zipp are using the best ceramics they can find in their bearings, and there are very likely cheaper bearings that are going to have a lesser surface finish and therefore far fewer gains. I’d be especially leery of the improvement from other ceramic bottom brackets because my guess is that the seal design and lubricaton are significant factor, especially given the big difference in gains from using ceramic bearings between the bottom bracket and wheels. As for cost, I’ve seen 5 bearing sets for Mavic wheels for $300. Or, you can find a set of bearings for $35 on ebay.

In other words, buyer beware. Those ceramic bearings you saw on ebay may not be any faster than the ones you’re currently using.

Speed Improvement: Medium (pretty good for a hardware change)
Coolness Factor: High (all the pros are doing it)
Cost effectiveness: Low

Verdict: The bottom bracket looks nice, but yowsa, those parts are expensive. But, probably a better use of funds that that titanium seat post bolt you were thinking of buying…

Faster #3 – Ride with the fast guys

or girls…

This is probably the most common suggestion that riders give when asked how to get faster. I know that I got it, and it led me to head out on a lunch ride with some co-workers. At the time, I’d been riding for about a season, and had only done a small amount of riding with other people.

The “slow warm up” consisted of a 20MPH ride on a slight uphill, and then continued through a flat section. I spent the first 20 minutes dropping off the back, chasing, dropping off the back, chasing, and soon after that…

well, I’m sure you all know what happened then.

So, what is the training benefit of something like that? To do that, I’ll correlate it with some of the better approaches to training.

Riding with the fast guys is like doing intervals. Poorly. It can definitely make you faster, but the pain/reward ratio is higher than a lot of other approaches.

Speed Improvement:Low/Medium
Coolness Factor: Nil. Being dropped is not cool
Cost effectiveness: Low, for the amount of pain you endure


Faster #2 – Light Wheels

This time, we’ll talk about whether lighter wheels make you faster.  

This last summer, I upgrade from a set of Bontrager Race X Lite wheels (which run about 1900 grams) to a custom set from OddsAndEndos (which run around 1500 grams). That’s about 400 grams difference, which is about 0.9 lb.

The lighter weight will have two effects.

First, it’s going to give me less weight to climb. With me at about 165 pounds during the season and the bike overall weighing about 20 pounds, that means a drop of a pound will make me 184/185 or about 0.5% faster on climbs. On a 10 minute climb, that would be a savings of about 3 seconds.

Not really worth it for faster climbing (and you can probably guess what I’m going to say about light bikes in a future post)

So, what’s the big deal about lighter wheels? Well, it’s because they have a lighter rotational mass.

Whenever you start from a stop, you have to accelerate the bike and spin up all the rotating components of the bike. Because rotational inertia is proportional to the distance of the weight from the center of rotation, the weight of the rims + tires have the biggest effect. So, if you make them lighter, it takes less effort to do that.

This is especially important if you’re riding in pacelines or groups. Light wheels can reduce the amount of effort it takes to close gaps or grab onto the back of a paceline considerably, and those little efforts tire you out at a lot. If you ride by yourself at more of a constant speed, you probably aren’t doing as much accelerating, but it’s still a nice thing to do.

There are a few downsides of light wheels.

First, the lighter the wheel, the more expensive it is. My lighter wheels only cost about $500, but if you want to, you can easily spend $2000+ on a carbon wheelset.

Second, lightness may mean less durability, especially if you go for the really light stuff.

And finally, lighter wheels are a bit harder to control. Because there is less rotational inertia, it’s harder to hold a constant speed in a paceline, and the lower inertia also means that a given amount of force into the bars generates more lean angle. I notice this most on fast descents – I have to pay much more attention to keep the line that I want.

Speed Improvement: Medium to high (it may allow you to ride with a faster group where you couldn’t before)
Coolness factor: High
Cost effectiveness: Pretty good, if you look for some nice custom wheels.
Bonus benefit: You get to decide what hubs, spokes, colors, etc. if you go the custom route, and custom wheels are often tensioned better than machine-built wheels.

The ultimate food for long rides…

Phatty’s fictional post on how to be popular – fictional because of his delusion of popularity – reminded me of something that happened the last time that I did RSVP.

I was riding with a group of guys that work at the same large software company that I do (yes, *that* large software company).

The second day of RSVP starts in Bellingham, goes north and across the border into Canada, and wends its way north. After a while, it runs into the Fraser river in Fort Langley, where you will catch the Albion ferry to get to the other side. On the way to the ferry, there’s a small market, which Steve (not his real name) had been talking up for hours.

I’m not typically one to eat a lot on long rides, but the Steve’s Rhapsodic descriptions of the effectiveness of the macaroni and cheese as a mid-ride meal swayed me, so I bought a small server and headed outside with the others to eat. Steve decided not only to have the mac & cheese, but also to have a piece of chicken.

After a few minutes, he appeared outside with a large container of macaroni and cheese, a container of water, and a large roast chicken, which he bought “because it was cheaper that way”.

Initially, he was exposed to a considerable amount of teasing, but by the time we got back on our bikes 15 minutes later, the bulk of the chicken had been consumed by the four of us.

And, on that day at least, he was right about the mac and cheese.


Faster #1 – Aero bars

I’ve wanted to write more, but I’ve kept getting involved in big articles, and running out of steam partway through them.

Instead of that, I’m going to write a series of short articles about whether something will make you faster or not.

First up: Aero bars

Drag reduction is important in going faster, and aero bars definitely do it. So, put the bars on your bike, and you’ll go faster…

Well, not so fast (ha ha!). You have to get used to the aero bar position, which requires flexibility that many cyclists lack, and you’ll need to learn to ride on them smoothly. And you have to put up with the derision of many road cyclists.

The reason is simple. Road cyclists are jerks. No, wait, that’s not it. Road cyclists often ride around either in packs or in peletons, and in either case aero bars are dangerous because neither brakes nor direction are as well controlled. Not to mention that you don’t get much benefit from them in a pack, because you don’t spend that much time in the wind.

So, road cyclists may look down on you. Exceptions to this are as follows:

  1. You ride in time trials.
  2. You are a triathlete (all triathletes are considered a bit strange by road cyclists)


Speed improvement: high
Coolness factor: low (most cyclists) high (time trailists)

Nutrition Tips

My triathlete friend Chris wrote a nice post a while back with some nutrition tips. It covers a lot of the same topics that I’ve been meaning to write about, so I’m going to use his post as a starting point.

Carbohydrates and athletes

Philosophically, my nutrition is very close to what Chris advocates – I eat one way for my normal diet, and eat differently around my workouts. As Chris notes, simple carbs are fine during exercise, but should be limited other times. The difference is because of the difference in the body’s needs during the two periods, and the explanation is going to be long and have a few sidetrips, but I’ll get there in the end.

Basically, your body has mechanisms intended to regulate your blood sugar so that it stays in certain ranges. Your brain, muscles, and other systems are constantly pulling carbohydrate out of your blood, and your digestive system is providing carbs back into the blood. Since mammals don’t necessarily eat all the time, there are a couple of systems to smooth things out.

First of all, your liver stores a fair amount of glycogen, and it will release it to the blood as needed. It will also make you hungry. If you are exercising hard, however, you will get appetite suppression, and eventually, you will run out of liver glycogen. At that point, your body goes into a survival mode – it can synthesize enough glycogen to keep your brain going, but not support exercise at the same time.

This is the dreaded “bonk”, and the confusion that you get as part of a bonk is because you don’t have enough sugar in your brain. The amount of time it takes to bonk depends on how hard you’re exercising (higher intensity requires more carbs), your level of fitness (high trained individuals burn fewer carbs at a given intensity), and how full you muscle and liver glycogen tanks are. So, some people can ride 3 hours without bonking, and others might sometimes bonk after 75 minutes. Be especially observant with kids, as they don’t tend to eat as well or as often – my daughter bonked (or came close to it) on a bike ride last summer about 15 miles in because she hadn’t eaten much recently. I always carry a couple of gels in my seat pack for those situations, and that made her happier quickly (though not happy, as it takes days to recover from a bonk).

So, anyway, that’s why having a supply of carbs during exercise is a good idea, but as Chris notes, you don’t need much – perhaps 150-250 cal per hour.

If there is excess blood sugar, it will go to muscle and liver glycogen. If those are full, the liver will convert them to fat and save them for a rainy day. That mechanism has served mammals pretty well historically, but it evolved for the typical mammalian diet, and a situation where food is scarce. It has a few problems with refined carbs.

Or, not really with the refined carbs, but with the stuff that has been refined out. You can eat foods that are high and sugar – such as fruit – but the absorption will be slowed down by the fiber in the food. Similarly, if your meal is a mixture of carbs, protein, and fat, the protein and fat will slow down the absorption of the carbs, and you will get a slow trickle of nutritents, which will keep you satisfied for a longer period of time.

If you eat the refined stuff – sugar, white flour, white rice – you blood sugar goes up pretty fast, and your body will likely have to store some of it in fat, and your blood sugar will go back down.  So, that’s why the whole foods are better from a carb perspective – they keep you full longer. Not to mention their other health benefits.

During exercise, things are different – your liver and muscle glycogen aren’t full, and the small amounts that you should eat during exercise will go to keep those sources full.


It’s important to get protein and carbs very soon after exercise, to refill the liver and muscle glycogen stores and start any needed repair. If you don’t, your body will work to refill your glycogen stores by converting protein to glycogen. It gets this protein from your muscles, which would be bad. I have much less muscle soreness with carbs/protein drinks during and after exercise.

I’ve had great results with Endurox, and there are other recovery drinks out there. Low-fat chocolate milk is pretty good if you tolerate the lactose well.

The other huge advantage of a recovery drink is that it moderates your blood sugar, and you don’t get super-hungry after the workout, and then overeat.


Finally, you need to think about maintaining your sodium stores. If you are eating fairly well, you probably aren’t taking in a lot of sodium, and you can easily burn through all of that sodium after a few hours of continuous exercise. Your sports drink may not provide enough sodium, so you may need to consider supplementation



2007 Summary

Last year I did a quick summary.

And here’s this year’s data:


2090 miles

Elevation Gain:

105,446 ft

Average Speed:

14.7 mph




143 hours

Heart Beats:

969109 beats

That’s about 500 miles shorter than what I rode last year, but given that I haven’t ridden much in the past 8 weeks, that’s not surprising. This doesn’t contain any time on the trainer or the rain bike as I’m too lazy to track anything that doesn’t show up automatically on my polar HRM.

It’s interesting to note that did nearly the identical amount of climbing as last year despite having ridden about 20% fewer miles. I guess that means I rode a lot more hills (and RAMROD had something to do with it).

My plans for next year:

  • Work on my core strength. I backed off on that mid-july and my back has been bothering me.
  • Play some soccer. I like cycling, but I need something that’s weight bearing and team based.
  • Try to get into RAMDOD again
  • Think about doing STP one-day, so I don’t have to remember it as a sucky sucky day
  • Lead a few rides for cascade – I want to do an organized ride up Stevens Pass, and Zoo Hill.

A ride

Today, I went on a ride. The first ride since I got hurt.

I have been on the bike since then. But, it was a very controlled ride, on my rain bike, where I found that my “leave it on the trainer” approach to maintenance didn’t do anything to make the “broken-when-they-made-it” Shimano RSX drivetrain on my 30 lb LeMond Tourmalet work better, and in fact it meant that I broke a rear spoke and my bottom bracket started creaking.

And my body hurt, so after about 45 minutes I limped back in both the mechanical and physical sense.

Redmond cycle replaced the spoke, chain, and did some tuning up, and I did some more PT, so today I went on a real ride. Sure, the bike still weighs a ton and has rims made of lead, but I did somewhere around 25 miles without overworking my body.

Deep breath…

Deep breath.


Sit up.

Knee hurts.

Left shoulder hurts.

No pain on the clavicle. That’s good.

Sit for a little.

Scoot left, off the trail, take off the helmet, gloves, sunglasses.

Move around experimentally. Ouch. Is the kid okay?


I’ve been under the weather for a week or so – skipping the Tuesday and Thursday night rides – and I really wanted to get out on Sunday. I did shopping in the morning, and then headed out for an easy 20 or so. An easy 20 because I came really close to skipping the riding and working on a storage project.

The easiest 20 starting at my house runs down to Marymoor park, up the Sammamish River Trail to Woodinville and back. It was about 50 degrees, so I went with a light underlayer, jersey, vest, and leg warmers. Yeah, and shorts, socks, shoes, and my full-finger gloves, with arm warmers and hat in my pockets.

I took it easy on the way up, because I didn’t know how I’d feel, and because there was a headwind. Oh, and because Sunday afternoon is a high use time, so the trail is not a place to try to make time.

I got to Woodinville, took a break and stretched (my right knee is still not healed), and turned around back. The tailwind (and I have to mention that there really was a tailwind, as I swear that this trail often manages to have headwinds both ways). I’m spinning along at an easy 16-18 when I can.

About 3 miles south of Woodinville, I come up behind a jogger with a cyclist riding next to her. The cyclist is weaving around a bunch, and I’m waiting for an opportunity to pass, when she sees me and pulls ahead of the runner. I start to ease by when the jogger makes a U-turn directly across the trail right in front of me. I move left and hit the brakes and barely miss her. I ask her to PLEASE look before she cuts across the trail, and ride on.

You may wonder at this point why I didn’t say anything to her to tell her I was there before I started to pass…

My experience is that that is usually a waste of breath. If there is somebody who is moving in a predictable manner on the right side of the lane, I’ve found that it’s safer for me to pass at the far left than to say something, as saying something sometimes cause them to move out of their path. “On your left” has been particularly bad in this respect.

If I come on a group or up to riders that look unpredictable, I might say “passing”, but at that point I’m already down to their speed and I really need them to move for me to pass safely.

So, anyway, I have a bit of a jolt of adrenalin, and I keep riding south, on into Redmond. This part is typically more busy, so I drop down to an honest 15 MPH. As I approach the underpass at NE 90th st, I move left a bit (since it’s dark underneath), I see single image of the front triangle of a small bike, and WHAM, I’m on the ground.

“Are you okay?”

The voice is young, and when I turn and look I guess that she’s about 8.  

“I’m not sure yet”

I look up to see another cyclist on his cell phone talking to the Redmond emergency dispatchers. An adult comes to my side, and I ask “is the kid okay?” The woman says that he has a bloody nose but he looks otherwise uninjured, and tells me that the kid’s mom is on her way.  

The EMTs show up about 7 minutes later. I thank the rider who called and the other people who stopped and move father off to the side.

“Do you know where you are?”

I understand the question – he wants to know if I am oriented – but the needlessly precise part of my mind says “Is this redmond, or is this king county here?”. I look both ways down the trail, and settle on “Redmond”, which makes him happy. I tell him my shoulder hurts, and he’s a bit surprised to find out that my collarbone is not broken (I was pleasantly surprised to find that out myself). They do a quick exam of my other body parts – my gloves look unscathed, as does my helmet.

At this point, I’m starting to shiver – partly because the adrenalin is wearing off, and partly because I’m dressed to ride, not to stand around sweaty in the shade. I look over and see the boy – he’s about 11 years old, lots of blood on his face, but he looks okay. His mom approaches me, introduces herself, and offers to take me to where my car is.

She goes to get in her car, the EMTs send me to the jump seat and put my bike in the back doors. They drive out to 90th, drop me off, and the boy’s mother takes me home. She apologizes, tells me that she tells her son to make sure to look, and I tell her that I have a 13 year old and sometimes they need a more intense experience to internalize that sort of advice.

We get back to my house, she gives me her number and I take the bike and hoist it up to the spot on the wall where it lives with my right arm.

That was a mistake….


So, what’s the damage?

Well, physically, I did a number on my shoulder, but I don’t think I broke anything (going to the Dr this morning to be sure). Left knee is swolen but doesn’t hurt too much. Abrasians on both elbows, both sides, and some rather nice brusing on my butt. I think I have a bit of a bruise on the left side of my head, but I’m not sure because I had a migraine after I got home and it’s hard to tell the two apart.

As for the bike…

Well, the fork is rather convincingly disconnected from the frame. The front brakes are misaligned but I don’t know if anything’s bent or broken. A quick look at the rest of the frame didn’t show anything obvious, but I may have missed something. It’s going to go into the Trek dealer for the full test because you don’t mess with damage in carbon fiber frames.

The front wheel seemed undamaged when I looked at it.

That’s my first crash. I’m happy that it was so minor.


Getting Faster – Training philosophy

When people first start riding, they rarely have any training philosophy other than “just go out and ride”. And initially, that’s enough – the mere act of riding at all puts a fair amount of training stress on your system, and you therefore improve.

But as you start to ride more, you’ll get to the point where your body has adapted to the way that you are training. Or, to put it another way, the workouts that you are doing aren’t putting sufficient stress (or, more specifically, the right kind of stress) on your body, so you get stuck.

At this point, most people try to ride more/harder, which can achieve some gains, but you will rapidly reach the point of diminishing returns.

To make further gains, you need to switch to training that can stress your body in specific ways, so that you can improve in those individual ways. Together, those improvements will make you faster.