Saturday, April 09, 2011

Bikes that do the work for you

I'm being honest when I say that the number of times I've ridden a "road" bike can probably still be counted on two hands. My first two bikes were "touring bicycles" — lower-end Ibex Corridas that I rode over thousands of miles of pavement, but they had flat handlebars and relaxed geometry and couldn't really be called road bikes. I have a fixed-gear commuter that is also a hybrid of a road bike, but my experiences with drop-handlebar, high-tire-pressure, lightweight road bicycles are still limited to a few borrowed and rented bicycles on a few random rides.

I do ride pavement. I just ride it on a mountain bike. This has always worked just fine for me in the past because I lived in climates where the weather turned roads to debris-strewn obstacle courses for much of the year, and on the rare days that they were clear, I was probably out pursuing high-country dirt anyway. For my style of riding, a road bike just seemed excessive — a boutique bike, like a high-wheeler or a unicycle ... fun to play with but ultimately unnecessary.

Only now I'm living in the Silicon Valley, covered in a seemingly endless maze of smooth and winding pavement. While there are trails and open space areas here, this is decidedly roadie country. I see them everywhere — when I'm walking to the store, when I'm sitting at the coffee shop, when I'm ambling up the road on my bouncy bike. They always look so graceful and effortlessly fast, and strangely overdressed in their matching neon yellow jackets and tights. I make a solid attempt to chase them with the bouncy bike, but it usually isn't long before the gap grows larger. Since I didn't know any better, I blamed myself ("I'm slow. Oh well. Hey, is that a singletrack trail on that hillside? I better check that out!")

Beat has been telling me that I need to try road biking. He has a beautiful carbon Calfee that he doesn't really ride either, at least not since he saw the light and gave up triathlons for ultrarunning. Beat could tell you more about its wheelset and components — all I know is that it's black and weighs about as much as Pugsley's seatpost. I had been eyeing it enviously all month. Finally, today, we went to Sportsman's Basement to buy a pair of shiny white and silver road shoes, and Look cleats. Equipped with the proper attachments, I no longer had an excuse not to try out the Calfee. Beat had to ride his own bouncy bike, a Santa Cruz Blur. We decided on a route that Beat remembered as "short" from his triathlon training days, and set out.

Road bikes make me nervous. I always feel so squirrelly, teetering on those tiny wheels while I obsess about getting my foot in and out of the clipless pedals (which is always humorous because as soon as I stop thinking about it, it becomes second nature and clipless attachments have never actually caused me any problems.) We set out on Foothill Boulevard, spinning super easy. At least I thought we were spinning easy. When I looked over at Beat, he was working up a solid sweat.

At mile 11 we hit the top of a rolling descent and Beat said I should surge ahead because it would be more fun for me. "OK!" I exclaimed and clicked up the shifters. I put a little extra power into each stroke — not enough to really raise my heart rate, but just enough to power up each roller. After about what seemed like five minutes, I dropped back into the valley. I stopped on an overpass above a roaring Interstate 280, quite bewildered. "This doesn't look right." Several minutes later, Beat caught up to me, wheezing. I had overshot the turn by three miles. Yes, three miles. Beat seemed really annoyed about it for some reason.

We made it back to Old La Honda Road and started up the narrow, winding corridor. This too was an easy spin so I took photographs and said hello to other climbing cyclists who did not seem inclined to chat. The Calfee climbed so effortlessly that I started to suspect there was in fact a small electric motor attached to the frame somewhere. I looked for it but could not locate it. A few more relaxing minutes passed and we were inexplicably at 1,800 feet on Skyline Drive. We put on arm warmers and launched into the most physically taxing and difficult part of the ride, the steep descent. I clenched my teeth and throttled the brakes, never quite trusting those tenuous tires to actually stick to the road around each tight corner. Finally, I held my pedals parallel and pushed my butt behind the saddle. This mountain bike pose did help a bit with my confidence.

Then we rode home. It was like a few more minutes. Beat rode beside me and said he felt knackered. Really? I looked at my GPS. We had ridden 41 miles and climbed 2,700 feet. On my mountain bike, even on pavement, that would be a tough afternoon ride. No wonder Beat was tired.

Beat asked me how I liked the road bike. I had to admit it was fantastically fun, but also kind of boring, too. Beat enjoyed a good, solid ride on his knobby tires. He got to work twice as hard while I meandered along on his light, fast road bike. I mean, what's the point of a bicycle that does all the work for you?

"The point is to go faster and farther," Beat said.

"Oh," I said. I get it now. Faster and farther. Next time, I'm going to try that.


  1. The last time I was on my road bike was July of last year.

    It looks ridiculously funny sitting next to the Pugsley :)

  2. ahh ha. Well I have a FatBack and a HardTail, and ride dirt everychance-time. However sometimes it is just good to feel the 'zip' of pavement on the skinnies. It's all good. :-)

  3. Awesome post. Very funny. Clearly, though, if you are going to fit in you need a fully color-coordinated outfit with matching helmet. Shouldn't cost much more than a few hundred bucks :-)

  4. My husband has a Calfee. When he road tested it before he bought it in Colorado, he came back from the ride with a ridiculously big grin on his face. He looked like he was in love, and if I didn't know better I would have sworn he had met another woman and was about to leave me. The three of us have learned to live together peacefully. It is a sweetly made bike, and not at all boring if you just let it have it's head and run. No need to hold back at all.

  5. Whenever I meet another cyclist somewhere other than the road/trail, there's always the inevitable question, "Do you ride road or mountain?" Though I shouldn't be surprised by it anymore, I still always feel a little incredulous that people think they have to choose just one. I always answer, matter-of-factly, "Both." Blazing down a paved mountain pass on skinny tires is fun. Climbing up a remote bit of singletrack is fun. Riding is fun, period, whether on road or mountain. Don't limit yourself.

  6. That's funny, I spent a summer in Palo Alto seemingly forever ago and road Old La Honda a lot. I'm guessing it's the same OLH/Skyline you were on.

    And yes, road bikes are fun. Just don't tell anyone I said that. :)

    Fruita mid-April is also fun. Just sayin'.

  7. Glad you're getting your feet wet with road cycling. Once you learn how to ride in a fast group and run a smooth paceline with a group of evenly matched riders, it's anything but boring!

  8. Time to organize a Blog-ride. It's tough to abide you saying that road biking is too easy!

  9. Ygduf and Harry:

    This post was meant to be tongue-in-cheek. I know it reads like mountain bike snobbery, but the truth is I had an awesome time road biking and am such a beginner at it that anyone with a semi-decent grasp of the technique would leave me in the dust. I by no means believe road cycling is easy — quite the opposite. But I look forward to honing my skills and fitness. Hopefully soon I will feel comfortable riding in groups and join the packs of roadies I see riding around here. It looks awfully fun.

  10. A fast road ride with like minded people is huge fun. Drafting, taking pulls at the front - not boring at all...


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