Wait, I'm not done alienating everybody yet.

My last entry teased beginning cyclists on the path for their clothing delusions and funky anti-social face-making. Let me tell you, that one rubbed people the wrong way. In my experience bicyclists do not deal well with (they royally freak out about) any criticism whatsoever of their clothing choices. It is, like, off-limits. This of course makes such criticism a good deal more entertaining. For the record, my own bicycle stink face is an approximate cross between the Scream mask and Nick Nolte's DUI mug shot.

This time around I have a message for those self-conscious two-wheeled transportationalists who would sooner stab themselves in the chest than wear lycra panel shorts:

This summer when you're at the bar and the TV there happens to be showing the start of some Tour de France stage, and you and your friends start to laugh and trade insults about all those candy-colored lycra clowns you see on the roads these days, steal a moment to study the racers' positioning on their machines. This is something all bicyclists do well to learn and understand.

Way too often these days, beginning riders from across the cultural spectrum crank the handlebars on their bikes up high (as high as they will possibly go in many cases) and keep the seat too low. This more closely approximates the chair-sitting they're used to, and may feel nice at first, but provides a piss poor bicycling position for all but the shortest trips.

Importantly, the classic handlebar position on a road racing bike looks unreasonable and frighteningly uncomfortable to many a new cyclist. With the handlebars below seat height it seems to them as if it would require painful contortions to reach the bars. They take one look at the typical road bike seat -- it looks like some kind of ass-hatchet torture device -- they want no part of that either. Anybody who chooses such equipment for rides around the city, they say to themselves, must have masochistic tendencies. But look at those racers rolling casually across the French lowlands on the TV there. Each of them looks as relaxed and comfortable as they could possibly be on a bike, you'll have to admit. They aren't straining in the slightest to reach the bars. They're riding in perfect ease and with maximum comfort. They could ride that way all day, and will.

Among a certain set these days anything associated with sport cycling is demonized and ridiculed. A new generation of alt-transportation activists has seized on classic road bike position, and road bikes themselves, as emblems of what has gone wrong with bicycling in America. Bike set-up and riding position having become collateral damage in the bike culture wars, I've noticed more and more young advocates congratulating themselves for riding in an exagerrated sitting-up position and telling others to do the same. They think they are making it easier on themselves by riding with their hands way up there, freeing themselves from the Americanized silliness of sport cycling, but really they are adding needless difficulty to the endeavor. In some cases they may be ruining the endeavor entirely.

It's pretty simple what you can learn from watching the experienced sport cyclist: Stretch out over the bike. For many beginners this will require a whole new conceptualization of how the bike's seat and handlebars are supposed to be used. You can sit full on the seat every now and again, but most of the time you're using it not really as a seat but as something on which to prop yourself against as you pedal. Properly done, the weight is on the feet, the sit-bones and the hands, all five contact points sharing the load. It's a real group effort. In a nice spread-out position the rider is able to slide around on the saddle very easily, frequently altering position in subtle or not-subtle ways. (When I ride I change position literally every few seconds.) Clearly the saddle, to fulfill this unique and very non-seat-like function, should not be fat or massively padded at all. Staying light over the bike is important. It's a great way to stave off fatigue and lets the rider shift his or her weight in any direction, up, down, forward, back or to either side to react properly to obstacles and traffic hazards. Effectively stopping the bike, turning it and gliding over rough patches all depend on a relaxed rider in a nice stretched-out position. Good positioning leads to greater endurance, comfort and maneuverability.

It's not an extreme position by any means. I'm not talking about the head-down, hands-in-the-drops position that racers use to cheat the wind during time trials and solo attacks -- that position can be difficult to achieve even for some pros, and would be downright dangerous for city riding anyway. I'm talking about something much more casual. You can achieve righteous spread-out positioning on a classic three-speed or cruiser, for instance, as long as the handlebars and seat are at a decent height. Flat bars or even swept-back bars can be used for greater control, although traditional road handlebars are designed to help the rider achieve that light, stretched-out position in several different ways, in addition to providing a sitting-up hand position and an aerodynamic racing position.

Spread yourself out over the bike. That's how TDF riders race 150-mile stages, day in, day out. There is really no other way to do it. If they tried it on 'comfort bikes' with big seats and upright positioning it would be far more difficult and uncomfortable.

Who cares, you say. I ain't ridin' no Tour day France. Indeed not, but let's say you want to pedal from downtown Denver to Cherry Creek on the bike path or something like that. It's only a few miles, about a 20-minute jaunt, straight up the bike highway -- seemingly very casual and the perfect ride for the Copenhagenized hipster in flowing sundress on a Dutch-style three speed. Honestly, it can't get much more 'bike-friendly' than this.

Sure, she looks great. With her practical chaincase and full fenders she's going to keep looking great all the way to her destination and back -- critically important for some forms of transportational cycling. She's the very picture of the non-lycra-wearing utility bike future that many advocates envision. That's fantastic-o. Unfortunately, with her seat too low and the bars too high, it becomes impossible for our sundressed heroine to achieve a good comfortable position for this short ride. Sitting up with almost all her weight on the seat, a gigantor padded saddle becomes a necessity. Even with all that padding, the rumpus and associated regions become angry before too long, with good reason. She can't move properly over the bike to keep her muscles fresh or react to pigeons and homeless men on the path. Every bump and insignificant seam in the concrete is transferred into her lower back, instead of dissipated in the perfect natural shock absorbers of her arms and legs. The extra wide and beefy tires of her 35-pound 'city bike' help with the bumps but add a significant amount of rolling resistance. Compared to racing tires they feel like they're rolling through wet concrete. Sitting up, she catches all the air she can possibly catch with her torso, a human kite.

The path rises gently, but relentlessly, headed upriver. Completely separated from the traffic grid, the route encounters no red lights or stop signs -- no stops for the weary pedaler. By the time she reaches Washington Street Falls, about half way, she's aching in a most unwelcome manner and no longer feeling the joy of bicycling. The trip has been about eight times more difficult than it needs to be. Because she's always assumed and been told that cycling comfort coincides with sitting up straight on a big seat, she may have a difficult time imagining how she could possibly make herself any more comfortable. So next time, screw this noise, she's going to take the Jetta.

No, you're not in a race. You don't have to dress like Lance. You don't have to ride a $5000 race bike. But you may still care at least a little about efficiency, comfort and speed as a utility cyclist.

Maybe you really care only about fashion. In which case, I can't help ya.

 

"Make it work." -- Tim Gunn