When trying to improve in cycling, it’s usually not one major thing that makes an athlete better but a lot of little things. The athletes that pay attention to detail and look for new training techniques to experiment with are the ones that are successful. One of the classic ways to develop a smooth pedal stroke is by riding a fixed gear in the off-season, but doing so also has a host of additional benefits for your overall cycling fitness.
Improving your pedal stroke
This is the obvious benefit. After a long hard season in the saddle, our pedal stoke can use some help. It loses its suppleness, especially as we get older. Supple and smooth pedaling is essential to being successful on the bike and too few athletes address this important issue. Fixed gearing is such a simple way to do it. Even a short ride has purpose in that you are constantly pedaling and learning to pedal through the two “dead” spots of the pedal rotation. By training the legs to transition thru the different muscle groups with smoothness eliminates wasted energy and will improve your efficiency.
Strength and Aerobic Capacity
Yes, fixed gearing can help your power by riding in the hills and over rolling terrain. Ride them in the hills and you will immediately see the benefit. The gear you choose is essential. You don’t want too much gear that it causes problems in terms of climbing (like falling over) or back and knee pain. Choose a gear that is slightly difficult, but not impossible, keeping in mind that the idea of having a fixed gear is improvement of pedaling technique.
I have been using a 39×16 for years in the hills around the Gold Country of Sacramento. However, it is better to start out with something easier and build up, and I recommend 39×18 or 17 for those brand new to fixed gear riding. Remember, by being in the rolling hills you will naturally get the benefit of spinning high RPM’s on descents and on the flats, thus improving your aerobic capacity. Start by taking the descents slow, by sucking up as much wind as possible (like a parachute) and feathering the brakes. Build up slowly to those super high speeds and cadences!
Think about it for a minute. You consistently pedal for hours with NO freewheeling. One major benefit is muscle endurance. In addition, the lack of “wasted” time spent freewheeling means it’s also a very time-efficient mode of training in the off-season, especially with the decreasing hours of available light. I have never seen a direct calculation as to how long a fixed gear ride translates to a regular road bike in terms of pedaling time. My gut feel is it’s about three to five, such that a three hour fixed gear ride is equal to five hours on the road bike. Maybe we can get Stephen to do a study on this very subject!
Keep the pedaling smooth when you are tired
This goes hand in hand with the muscle endurance. You know that feeling of tiredness at the end of a long training ride or race? Fixed gearing helps you stay relaxed in those situations. You find that even though you may be fatigued, your pedaling is smooth because you have no choice but to be smooth.
Bike racing is a lot of transition pedaling which includes cadence and torque variations. Slow cadence (and high torque) to super fast cadence (and low torque) over and over again. When riding a fixed gear you can go from 50rpms to 120 in a matter of seconds while going over the tops of hills. It trains the legs to react to those situations. From a physiological perspective, this helps train your body to clear lactate.
Here are some tips on setting one up:
• Since specificity in bike fit and biomechanics is so important, make sure your crank length is the same as your main road bike. It helps make the transition easier from bike to bike.
• EBAY! – You don’t have to spend a lot of cash on this machine (save it for those new wheels next year or better yet – coaching.) Go to EBay and under cycling, do a search on “fixed gear”. There are always bikes and parts available. The beauty of a fixed gear is that there are not as many moving parts, so it’s great for bad weather days and easy to clean. You can get an old frame and get a bike built for around $300-400. There are also many you can buy new and modify to your specific needs, like the Bianchi “Pista” or IRO Cycles. A lot of companies are now adding fixed gears to their line-up.
• Most important is the back wheel. Not a bad idea to get one of the reversible hubs where you can have two cogs. Make sure they are close (i.e. 17,18), so the chain length is not affected. Also, if the wheels you use can have quick release, this will eliminate the need to carry an extra wrench when you have to change a flat.
• Some feel more comfortable with two brakes. In my experience though, one strong brake on the front allows stopping in pretty much any situation, as you use the force of your legs to “backpedal” and slow down.
• One of the best things you can add to your fixed gear bike is a road version of the Rock Shox seat posts (aka – prostate saver). This one speaks for itself! One of these, combined with a comfortable seat and good shorts or bibs will save you from the discomfort of constant pedaling.
Your First Ride
After the bike has been setup, there may be some anxiety in regards to your first ride. Never fear though, after a couple trips around the block, it will become second nature:
• Try the first ride in an area with little traffic and preferably on flatter terrain. Tell yourself to relax and get into the flow of the bike.
• You may want to try your first few pedal strokes without cycling shoes. That way, you will get the hang of getting the bike moving without that locked in feeling.
• Always be thinking to yourself that you must pedal and NOT coast. You are cruising down the road, daydreaming about winning a stage of the Tour and something in your mind “clicks,” resulting in trying to coast. The back wheel violently lifts off the ground, immediately resulting in a major rush of adrenaline! Well needless to say, it snaps you back to reality and doesn’t happen again for a very long time!
The best way to learn is to just get on one and start riding (maybe don’t clip in for a while). Another tip would be to try it on a set of rollers to get comfortable before going out to fight traffic. Just remember, as in most new things we attempt, it may take some time to get used to the new setup.
No rocket science here. Riding a fixed gear is a great way to focus on something this winter which has direct benefits all season long. You can also continue to ride it in the summer to keep your pedaling supple and change up bikes. Another idea is to organize group rides on fixed gear bikes. It’s difficult to be on a fixed and ride with a group of regular road bikes. By doing it with other riders with the same goal, it can be so beneficial and of course a lot of fun.
Ride safe! Ride strong!
Bruce Hendler created AthletiCamps to provide cycling specific coaching and training to athletes and cyclists of all levels. Find out more at www.athleticamps.com and check out the AthletiCamps Blog.