7 Hills 2008

The 7 Hills of Kirkland marks the unofficial real start of the riding season for me. It takes me over hills that are close to my house that I’ve ridden a lot, and has a decent potential for pain. Last year I did the Metric Century (58 miles (yes, I know…)) and felt pretty strong, and that was the plan this year.

Until I cracked my rib.

I went out last Thursday and did some steep hills, and the pain was bearable but I was only at about 70% on breathing before it hurt. I decided to do the 7 Hills variant (well, actually, I decided to do the first few hills, knowing that it was easy to head back if I didn’t feel up to it). Usually, I start with a group of friends and ride with them on the first few hills (or, more rarely, for the whole ride), mostly because they carry a lot more mileage than I do, but this year I decided to get dropped at the starting line and rode by myself, leaving at around 7:20.

I chanced riding in a jersey, shorts, arm & leg warmers despite the temp in the low 50s, because of the amount of climbing. I climbed fairly slowly up Market, and up Juanita, flew down Holmes Pt Drive, and came to the first real hill, Seminary (#3). Seminary has a steep section at the beginning, and then it levels off and people speed up, generally too fast. I rode to keep my heartrate down below my lactate threshold for most of the hill, only speeding up for the last part of the ride. I passed a bunch of people who hit it too hard at the bottom.

A screaming descent down Juanita drive to the North took me onto the trail, and to the base of Norway (one of the 3 hardest hills). I rode the first half conservatively, and then the second half a bit harder, talking with a rider who was doing the century. We crested, descended, and then traversed across to the first food stop. That involves hill #4, which I guess technically is a hill but seems pretty minor compared to all the others. A quick stop for a bagel, a nature break, and a salt pill, and I was on my way.

We work our way over to the top of Brickyard, and then descended down. I was able to hold a full aero position (something I couldn’t do on Thursday), and was going fast enough to not worry about cars needing to pass me. We worked our way around, and got to Winery.

Winery is reckoned by many to be the hardest hill. I think Seminary is harder because it doesn’t let you rest much, while winery is more rolling. I took the first pitch conservatively, and then took the second pitch harder as there were some people catching me. I recovered on the last pitch, listening to the strains of the 7 hills bagpiper as I reached the top of the hill (the bagpiper is a guy who donates his time (7 hills is a fundraising ride) every year, and if you’re riding the short course, you know that that worst is over.

I skipped the food stop, avoided some people turning left (please don’t ride through turns with two tandems side by side, it tends to make it hard for other riders), and then dropped down the hill onto Willows road. This is one of the “ride fast home” sections that my evening group often takes, and it’s good for a paceline. To triathletes took off faster than I wanted to go, so I just rode a comfortable pace (probably 20ish – I deliberately had my computer on altitude so I wouldn’t ride too fast). After 5 minutes or so, another rider eased by and he pulled the rest of the way, and we rode to the base of Old Redmond road for the last time. He took off (better legs than me), and I rode the steep pitch at a moderate pace, and then rode all out to the top. That put me on the descent on 116th (another one of my favorites)(where I passed the guy I worked with on Willows), the descent on Northup, and then the pull back to Kirkland.

I decided to air things out back to Kirkland, and was at a steady (and painful) 22-23 on the flats. About half a mile from the finish, I slowed down, and the faster guy passed me (he had chased and caught up), and we rode to the finish.

Which was pretty much deserted – probably 20 riders total. Most of the stronger riders were on the metric or the century, so I drank my Endurox, had some strawberry shortcake, and bought a $5 T-shirt before riding home.

Total time was 2:28, with an average speed of 15.4MPH. Not bad for me and my current training state.

And I finished feeling good, so it was a nice enjoyable ride.

Faster #8 – Cadence

Armstrong had a fast cadence, and he won a millon Tours de France, so we should all ride at a high cadence, right?

If you ask 10 cyclists about the importance of cadence, you’ll get 3 different answers and 7 blank looks. Cadence is confusing, but the basic fact is that riding at a higher cadence is faster, except when it isn’t.

High Cadence is Faster

So, you went out on that hilly century to ride with some friends. You felt good and fast on the hills, but by mile 50 your legs were burning, and you could barely make it up the later hills.

Power is the product of force – how hard you push on the pedals – and cadence – how fast your turn the pedals. Drop down a gear or two, push 20% easier and spin 20% faster, and you get up the hill at the same speed.

But you save your legs. If you’ve ever weightlifted, you know that a 20% difference in weight can make a huge difference in how many repetitions you can complete. The same effect is at work on your bike – spin instead of mashing, and you can climb 7 hills before your legs give out instead of 5.

It’s also true that riding at a higher cadence helps you develop a better pedal stroke, which recruits more muscles and uses them over a longer period of rotation, lessening the peak force for a given amount of power.

And it helps you accelerate faster when you need it.

Higher Cadence is Slower

When you spin, you put more load on your heart and less on your muscles. All things being equal, for a given amount of power, spinning faster will take more aerobic capacity, so you’ll be more out of breath on that climb.

And, if you spin all the time, you can develop a great aerobic system, but you don’t stress your leg muscles, and they don’t get stronger.

A Proper Balance

For a given individual in a specific state of training and a particular ride, there’s a “fastest cadence”. It’s the one where you use up your leg strength right as you finish the race. Ths could easily be faster than your current cadence, and it’s therefore worthwhile spending some time working on cadence.

My Cadence Story

When I got serious at cycling a few years ago, my average cadence was in the 80s, and I decided to work on getting better at it. By just trying to spin faster, I got myself up to a top cadence of around 100RPM, but I wasn’t very comfortable of it.

Then when I did the Carmichael training a couple of years ago, they specified specific cadence drills to do. I did them that summer, and over the past few seasons. My max on-bike cadence is now up into the mid 140s, and I can high 120+ pretty easily. My average is a little bit higher, but not a ton higher, partly because I spend a lot of time on low-cadence muscle tension work on climbs.

The Drill

On a flat or slight uphill with medium resistance, slowly increase your cadence over a period of 30 seconds until you hit your maximum comfortable cadence. Hold that for 30 seconds, and then slow down over the next 30 seconds. Slow down a bit if you start to bounce. Do 3-4 repetitions of this.  

Initially, two things will happen. First of all, you’re going to feel a bit out of control. That’s because your muscles aren’t used to spinning that fast and you need to “rewire” your brain to make them work at that speed. Second, you are going to get really out of breath because you aren’t very efficient at that speed yet.

Once that starts to feel a little more natural, increase the time at which you hold the top cadence to 60 seconds. Do this once or perhaps twice a week, but you don’t really need to overdo it.

I also find it useful to do one-legged pedalling drills, where you clip out one side and do a fixed number of revs (20-30 is a decent place to start) on one foot, then that same number on both feet, and then the other foot, etc. Do this one the flat and in a quiet area, or do it on a trainer, as they feel really weird.

I can hit the low 120s fairly easily now on the bike, 130 with some effort, and I saw 140 with a slight downhill a while back (though I was bouncing a bit at that speed). On the recumbant exercise bike at the club where I work out I’ve hit 160 for short periods.

The unbearable suckiness of trainers

During the winter, you have few choices:

  • You can focus your training on keeping the couch from floating away, and watch much of your fitness vanish.
  • You can ride in the cold, rain, wind, and snow
  • You can do another sport
  • Or you can ride inside

Riding inside is the choice of many, and it’s been a common choice for me, with my bike mounted on a Kurt Kinetic trainer. Some people say that riding on a trainer is tiring. Some people say it’s tedious. I think that is unfair. Riding on a trainer is not tiring, not tedious, but an experience that sucks the soul right out of you. Even with music, a book, or a DVD, 40 minutes is about all I can take. Even WiiSports did not lessen the suckitude. 

Plus, there’s the hassle of getting the bike on the trainer, tightening the tension adjustment, and putting up with the noise. The one thing that I hate is the NOISE! NOISE! NOISE! NOISE!

Another indoor option is rollers. Rollers are pricier than trainers for a given quality level (or, perhaps, cheap rollers suck more than cheap trainers), have a reputation for being hard to ride and easy to ride off of, and being difficult to stand or sprint on successfully.

So, I thought about rollers, but for $350 plus $150 bucks for the resistance unit seems a lot considering the limitations. That’s for the Kreitler rollers, and yes, there are cheaper ones, but word is that they don’t work very well.

Last year at the Seattle bike expo, we saw a few riders demoing a new style of suspended rollers from InsideRide. And this year, I got around to ordering a set of their E-Motion rollers. Despite the price, which is in the $800 range, but just how much is too much to get your soul back?

First up was a bit of delayed gratification, as there was a 6-week backlog for the rollers. And then, due to their being shipped on FedEx (who are congenitally unable to understand the realities of home delivery) they got a nice tour on of the Puget Sound area on a truck for a few days before my generous wife picked them up for me.

Here’s what you get when you open the box.

Their unique features are:

  • Inline skate wheel bumpers on the ends of the front roller (keep you from riding off the sides)
  • Roller bars in front of and in back of the rear rollers (keep you from riding off the front on back)
  • Rollers suspended in the main frame on rubber bungee cords

Perhaps that “keep you from” should really be “reduce the incidence of…”

You adjust the distance between the front and back rollers to fit on your bike (using the included wrench), and you’re set. They include a good set of instructions on how you should start, which worked well for me, except for the part of not clipping in. I did a couple of sessions in tennis shoes on top of my SPD-SLs, and thought that I had enough to worry about already without keeping my feet on the pedals.

As of now, I’ve probably ridden 3 hours on the rollers, It’s definitely a lot more like riding outside – the bike moves around a lot, and you need to pay more attention. It feels really weird at first, but as the instructions note, that goes away after a while. And while it is possible to stand up in a normal way, it feels really weird to have the bike oscillate forwards and backwards when you sit back down. You still have the “endless 2% hill” feeling because of the constant resistance – I had no idea how much I look forward to small undulations – but overall it’s pretty good. And quiet enough that I can keep the TV volume down, a big benefit since the guest room is underneath our bedroom and I sometimes like to ride early on the weekends.

My tip – it’s a lot easier to start if you have a horizontal surface on which to put your hand. You can start with slowly supporting yourself, and then slowly lift your hand. I found that easier than a doorway, though there are times when you’d like to have support on both sides.

So, what are the cons? Here’s my list:

  • Price. Unless you’re riding a bike in the $3K range, they’re probably more than you want to spend.
  • Resistance range. The resistance unit goes up really high, but even on zero, there’s a fair bit of resistance. You can reduce that by removing the belt to the resistance unit – which I did accidentally one time – but it would be nice if zero really meant zero. And I’d like the lowest to be a little lower, because riding at low intensities – such as a recovery ride – are going to have you riding fairly slowly, which gives you less stability.
  • The resistance adjustment is possible to hit with your cleats, and you may end up riding on 1 when you really want to be riding on 0.
  • The rollers are big and non-foldable. However, the back roller bumper is perfectly positioned to hold the unit upright when you lean it against a wall, and I happen to have a perfect slot in which to store them – as soon as I clean all the junk out of it.
  • There is no first aid kit. I have some scratches on my left forearm from falling into a shelf, and bruise on my right shoulder from a tip over. Both happened when I was stopping – no issues while I was riding.

Over time, I hope to be able to work up to this, without too much of this.

Ff you can afford them, they’re great. If you want another opinion, go read Fatty’s review.

Faster #7 – Heart Rate Monitors

Lots of the cool guys have heart rate monitors. Should you get one?

I’m going to assume that you are doing a set of structured workouts.

So, if you’re doing that, you need to set your training zones. You can do that by taking a percentage that you determine use 220-age or one of the other formulas, and then train based on that.

But there are a few problems with that. First of all, none of the formulas to determine max hr are of much use, as there are wide variances of maximum heart rate across the population.

But even if that formula does work for you, it’s a poor way to set ranges.

Basically, one of your goals is to push your anaerobic threshold to a higher percentage of your maximum heart rate. To do this, you may need to work out near your anaerobic threshold.

The problem is that that threshold is a moving target. A range set based on a maximum will likely be too high when you are untrained, and too low when you are well trained.

The right way to set ranges is to use a field test, like the Carmichael one. That will gve you better ranges, and a good way to track your progress over time.

The other big benefit of heart rate monitors is to get you to slow down. Most riders spend too much time working out right around their anaerobic threshold, which is bad.


Heart rate monitors are a great tool. Unfortunately, they can be a bit pricey, especially the ones that can upload your data to a computer.


Faster #6 – Cadence drills

To travel at a given speed, you need to put out a given amount of power. You can either do that by pedalling slowly and putting a lot of pressure on the pedals, or by pedalling faster and putting less pressure on the pedals.

Since the more pressure you put on the pedals, the faster your legs get tired, it’s preferable to pedal faster. Within reason.

First of all, there is a limit to how fast you can comfortably pedal. And second, spinning generally stresses your aerobic system more, so you can run out of breath more easily.

So high cadence isn’t somewhere you always want to go, but it’s a useful tool to have in your arsenal. And if you can ride smoothly at a high cadence, you will be able to ride smoothly at a lower cadence, which is a good thing.

You may have come across suggestions to aim for riding at 90 RPM. I’m going to make a different suggestion. If you are willing to work at it now and then, you can expand your RPM range all the way up to 120 RPM, and beyond.

To make good progress, you need to do focused drills that will work on your speed. Here’s the one that I like to do:

  1. Start at a comfortable cadence and a middle amount of pressure
  2. Over 30 seconds, gradually increase your cadence until you reach the point where your stroke becomes jerky or you start bouncing
  3. Back off the cadence slightly until you are smooth again
  4. Continue for 30 seconds
  5. Slow back down to your original cadence

Repeat this a couple of times, and you’re done for the day. The next time you get back to it, extend step 4 to a minute, and then ultimately aim for 2 minutes. You are retraining your neuromusclar system, and it will take a bit of time to do so, but over time you’ll smooth out again. Initially you will be a bit inefficient at this, so you might get out of breath. You can deal with this by going into a slightly easier gear, and over time it will get easier.

On normal rides, spend some time at a higher-than-normal cadence, but don’t try to push up your whole limits.

You don’t need a computer that supports cadence to do this, but it does help. With doing these now and then, I pushed my top cadence from 105 RPM up to 120 RPM, and on a ride last year I held 145 RPM for about a minute while pulling at the front of a paceline on a slightly downhill.

Rating: Good stuff. Will make you faster, but most importantly, will make you smoother and impress you’re riding buddies.


Faster #5 – Specificity

Initially, you just start riding. Perhaps you’re doing it for fitness, or to lose weight, or just for recreation. And then, at some point, you decide that you want to get a bit more serious, so you start riding a bit faster, riding a bit farther.

And then you plateau. You’re riding harder, but not getting any better.

The problem is that you’re riding “sorta hard”.

A bit of digression into training theory…

The purpose of training is to impose training stress on your body. The stress triggers your body to get better during recovery. But when you’re riding sorta hard, you aren’t riding hard enough to put a real training stress on your body. That’s why you plateau.

The way to get beyond this is to add specificity into your training. Rather than trying to work on all aspects of your riding – on all the energy systems that go into being fast – you work on them one at the time.

Or, in other words, your training is *specific* rather than being general. You might be doing:

  • Intervals, to stress your anaerobic system hard
  • Long steady rides to build up your aerobic system
  • Tempo work to push up your aerobic threshold
  • Muscle tension to improve your strength

And, you’ll be sure that you’re recovered so that you can get the full benefit from the hard workouts.

The disadvantage? Well, you have to have focus, and you have to work to fit the workout you want into group rides (if you go on group rides)

Speed Improvement: High
Coolness Factor: Low (this isn’t very sexy stuff)
Cost effectiveness: Epic. At most, you need a book, but you can get by with what you read on the internets.

Verdict: One of the best ways to improve your speed, if you can stick to it.

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.