Five lessons I learnt from road riding (on a mountain bike)

I’ve been cycling for a legit 18 months now and I thought that some sort of update on my adventures was in order. Unfortunately, I haven’t hit the trails often enough to give those escapades first priority, but a post on the madness that is trail biking will be coming in the future, make no mistake. 

What have I learnt since I decided to invest in a proper mountain bike at the end of 2015 and spark the asphalt? Well the first lesson for sure was that all parts of you that you didn’t know existed are tender like cookie dough the next morning (ouch!). But that’s something that any roadside bar degenerate could expect to know even before hopping in the saddle.

Nah. The sore muscles are just the tip  of the iceberg so I’d like to highlight in no particular order, five things that I discovered while riding on the road for the past year and a half that not only improved my riding, but also increased my levels of fitness as well.

Obey general rules of the road

Sometimes when I ride I feel as if my life is on the line, and for the most part it is! In my experience, you have to treat local drivers like predators – some of their road-fatality rap sheets stretch around the corner. Some drivers are fascinated by cyclists, especially at night when you have to use the fancy lights, and try to pscyhe you out with some “appropriate” horn play. Others paid top dollar for their license, and are eager to share their incompetence with the world. I’ve had drivers turn suddenly into a side street with no indicators (thank God for disc brakes) and of course, a lot of speed merchants try to beat the light. Generally, I get the impression that Trinidad motorists just straight up hate the inconvenience of sharing the road with cyclists.

So always remember kids; look both ways before you cross, and wait until the light is on red before doing so. But seriously now; in other words you have to be observant, so no headsets and music, no playing Pokémon Go – yes, riders hunting for Pokémon and text-riding is a thing unfortunately – and always keep an ear out for oncoming traffic behind.

“So always remember kids; look both ways before you cross, and wait until the light is on red before doing so.”

Make sure to ride with the traffic (staying to the left) as not only this is more than likely the law, but it gives drivers more time to see and react to you than if you were coming toward them.  Avoid riding two or three abreast to chit-chat; single file please. Those conversations can wait for when you stop, or after the ride. And yes, you have to wear a helmet – as geeky as it looks, once you’re out on the open road it is mandatory; unless of course you’d rather enjoy the five-star health care Trinidad hospitals are renowned for.

Okay, so now that the boring stuff is out of the way…

IMG_20160102_071036
Lying in wait. Back when ole “Betsy” was fresh out the shop.

The road is alive

This isn’t the same experience as riding on your neighbourhood street as a six-year-old on your first BMX. I didn’t think I’d have had to dedicate part of this post to this, but to be honest even I was surprised at the unpredictable animal that road cycling is. The neighbourhood “yutemen” on their customised stationary bikes that are four sizes too small for them know all about the beast that is the road. But the casual cyclist? Not so much.

“… to be honest even I was surprised at the unpredictable animal that road cycling is.”

But yes, the road is indeed alive. Not just with vehicular traffic (duh) I think I’ve haggled on that enough, but with hills, winding corners, potholes – you name it. I know what you’re thinking – of course I know there are hills on the road, slick! Yes, but driving up a hill and riding it, I can guarantee are two different experiences. Plus, it’s hard to gauge in a car, but most roads are not perfectly flat – you’d know when you’re on a bike though. The instant that you start to ride a gradient your legs tell you, and to the uninitiated it could suck… a lot.

Potholes are a given, so let’s skip that. Another thing that gives the open road a life of its own is breeze. Nope, not the cool draft that would kiss your face when you’re coasting down the bus route. I’m talking about the North-East Trade Winds coming straight at you at 30km/h, determined to send you from whence you came! Headwinds are a challenge. Especially on your way home after a 20km ride and you’re on your last reserves. But that’s alright: those seeming obstacles are a natural part of the road-riding experience and are just God’s gifts to help you get stronger. And you eventually will.

“Another thing that gives the open road a life of its own is breeze… I’m talking about the North-East Trade Winds coming straight at you at 30km/h, determined to send you from whence you came!”

Ride with a friend (drafting)

If you aren’t yet up to the task with dealing with the natural elements, namely the infamous head wind, this is where riding with company will help. For one riding with another cyclist, especially one more experienced than you, will help you to raise your level much faster, but it serves a more essential purpose. Drafting, or riding in a slipstream as professional riders like to call it, is the act or art rather, of sticking close behind your riding partner, allowing him to cut the wind to zero which in turn allows you to conserve more energy and makes for a faster overall ride. Try it the next time you’re out on the road I guarantee it works. Don’t believe me? As I said, pro riders depend on this to win races, and even in middle to long-distance runners on an athletics track use the concept of drafting to their advantage.

Cadence and gears (boosting your average speed)

Whether you ride a stationary, a road bike, or a mountain bike, you’re not going to be able to break any speed records if you have bad cadence (pedal rate). In order to make the most of a ride, I learnt that I had to always practise to continually accelerate, particularly if you are riding on long, flat, stretches – which you’d find on the bus route. The average cadence for a recreational rider is around 60-80 rpm. Maintain this rate while shifting into incrementally higher gears, and your bike should smoothly transition into a gradual acceleration until you realise you’re blowing past maxi-taxis even! Okay, not really, but you get the point. Being able to do this competently not only makes you look as seasoned as Emile Abraham, but does wonders for your engine as well – you’ll be running up stairs two at a time like nothing!

Riding downhill
Clearly I’m having fun here because I’m coasting downhill.

The hills are your friends 😀

No, I did not type that with any sarcasm whatsoever. Take it from a man who has hated hills since The Fugees last had a big album – riding hills will save your life! I mean, seriously: if you’ve invested time and money into a road riding hobby (especially if you got yourself a road bike) why not try to make it work for you? Why not try to get better at it?

But I get it. Even the slightest of gradients could turn to the newbie into a trembling, sweaty mass of lactic acid, so I can’t promise that you won’t tank the first fifty times. What happens eventually, especially if you ride the same incline on a regular basis, is that it isn’t as hard as it was the first time. And maybe you can ride a little faster. That’s when you know that you’re beginning to break barriers, and it’s the best feeling in the world! When you get back to the flat-road riding, you’re cutting through the wind like a freight train.

“Even the slightest of gradients could turn the newbie into a trembling, sweaty mass of lactic acid, so I can’t promise that you won’t tank the first fifty times.”

How do you get there though? Well, for one use your gears – opposite to how you would on a flat road. Crank down to a lower gear (one that is reasonable) and increase your cadence to as fast as you can manage. Hill climbing isn’t like running uphill where you can slow down; you have to keep the machine working or else gravity will slow you down and make the ride harder. Also try to ride in a zigzag providing there is no traffic. This enables you to cut down the incline and makes it a more bearable ride.

Lastly, what I’d like to say about hill climbing is that it’s a more efficient way to get in shape. Of course if you ride from Arima to Curepe and back, you’d probably get a nice work out (if not bored out of your mind!). However, you will get the same workout riding a shorter distance attacking a series of hills until you’re about to pass out. Since I started to climb a few months ago, I have noticed a marked difference in my endurance.

And that’s my story for now, 18 months of epic top-level cycling. I hope to the potential reader who has been wanting to get back in the saddle that this has inspired them somewhat. I do recommend that you invest in a (mountain) bike though, and hit the asphalt. Your body will thank you for it.

A list of things I may have forgotten:

  • Carry (coconut) water, and light snacks like granola bars, etc on a long ride.
  • Take a regular tune up at the bike shop (or do it yourself).
  • Keep your tyres well-inflated, this allows you to roll more efficiently on the road and ride faster.
  • If you intend to do night riding, make sure you have your light set with a headlight starting from at least 500 lumens. Recharge them regularly.
  • Don’t ride too far without a pouch with tools and a patch kit. 

 

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