Friday, December 30, 2011

Tahoe on PowerCranks

I'm spending the last week of the year in Tahoe. Last year, I swore off writing anything this time of the year because I was playing in pow-pow up to my unmentionables, but this year, Tahoe is pathetically dry (so far). I knew the conditions were not ideal for skiing, so I brought two bikes: my cyclocross bike for some potential trail riding and my Jack Kane equipped with PowerCranks.

On Saturday and Sunday I went to do some skiing and finished off the days with an hour and half hour, respectively, on the trainer spinning PCs. The sets were really clicking and I hardly ever had to think about how my legs should be moving.

On Monday, I decided that I'd get bored very quickly if I continued to ski the same few open runs, so I deiced to make it a day on the bike. I mapped out a route on Strava and figured I'd hit Donner Pass summit first, and finish the day off with a near-seven-mile slog up Alder Creek/Skislope back home. Now I had to decide whether I wanted to ride PCs, or ride my CX bike. The difference between the smallest gears is one gearinch, so that wasn't really a factor. But I didn't want to ride 35s on the road because of how heavy they felt, so I decided to ride PCs.

I've previously never ridden this far on PCs or climbed that much, so I had no idea what would happen to me. I asked my usual question: "What's the worst that could happen?" I figured that if it really got to be too much, I'd just turn around and head back.

I rolled out of the house and headed toward Donner Pass summit through the first few flat miles. The first thing I noticed was how smooth my pedal stroke was. I didn't even have to think about what I had to do, my legs just knew it. I think having spent some trainer time on PCs the two previous days definitely helped.

Then I hit Donner Pass - a 3.2-mile climb that rises about 1000 feet - the pedal stroke remained smooth, but I definitely felt that I wasn't on my regular cranks. I didn't have any issues going up the climb, even when it pitched up, but I did notice that my legs were in a greater amount of pain than they should have been for the watts I was seeing. At the top, I flipped myself around and descended back down toward Donner Lake. I figured on the way back, I'd go around the lake on the other side, but for those of you trying that in the future, don't do that in December. There was about a 70-meter stretch of snow/ice that I had to hike my bike over, which could have been avoided had I gone back the same way I came. 

My legs were feeling relatively good after coming down from Donner, so I decided to proceed to do the other major climb in the area - Alden Creek/Skislope. Strava has this at 6.8 miles (my Garmin measures it at 7.5 miles) and rising about 1500 feet; however, a good chunk of that elevation is gained in the last 2.5 miles, so if you feel like you're flying for the first four miles, don't worry, you'll pay for it soon enough. 

That was roughly my experience, as the first four miles of the climb came and went relatively painlessly, but once I hit the last 2.5-mile stretch, the really hard climbing began and my legs were definitely in a lot of pain. The one good thing about reaching the summit of that climb was that from that point, it's a downhill shot back to the house, so I knew that once I was done with the climb, I was done!

Yesterday, I decided to go ride once again, and see if  can better my time on Alder Creek. I rolled form the house up to Skislope and began climbing the road I descended earlier in the week. It's a 2.1-mile climb that goes up about 700 feet and it really hurts near the top as the pitches go higher and over 10%. It's especially unpleasant when you hit it 10 minutes into your ride without enough time to thoroughly warm-up. But once that was over, I knew I had a seven-mile descent down to the start of the main climb of the day. 

I hit the climb hard and took about five minutes off Monday's time, though I managed to lose about 30 seconds when I dropped a bottle and stopped to pick it up. 

Both rides above were done on Power Cranks. So how did they feel in comparison to riding regular cranks? There are at least three different aspects of riding you work while riding PCs. First and foremost, they force you to work on syncing your pedal stroke, otherwise you end up in a galop. Having never ridden PCs before September of this year, I've been on them for about three months now, and I no longer have syncing issues while riding them. From my experience, I feel that anyone who's willing to put in at least 2-3 hours a week riding PCs (on trainer first then outdoors), can get their legs consistently in sync in one to two months. Obviously, more time on PCs, yields faster results, but 2-3 hours is what I've been doing. 

The second wrinkle PCs help iron out is leg power disparity. I don't suffer from this to a great extent, but traditionally my left leg has been stronger, and on some climbs, I have noticed that my right is in just a little more pain than the left. Hopefully, with time on PCs, that will even itself out. 

The last, and in my opinion, largest issue is engaging muscles in your pedal stroke you never knew you had, or knew you had but didn't know you could use them to propel yourself on a bike. The need to engage the hip flexors and hamstrings definitely makes climbing harder - it almost feels like I'm riding with a heavy backpack. However, at the same time I realize that it's harder simply because those muscles were not developed enough in comparison to my glutes and quads which are likely more engaged when I'm on standard cranks. As the muscles strengthen, with time this third issue should go away, but in the meantime, I definitely feel it helping me when I jump back on my regular bike and head uphill. 

[Originally published on]

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Powercranks training update

I’ve been riding these more and more, and no longer on the trainer. Nowadays, all the PC work is happening outdoors and I’m enjoying it quite a bit. As I’ve mentioned previously, it’s a challenge and makes even the easy recovery rides interesting because while I’m pedaling lightly, I’m still training my muscle memory to fire the fibers in proper sequence, and I no longer have issues with the pedal stroke while on PCs. Now it’s all about building up stamina to go long distance on them.

The most recent PC workout was on Tuesday, when I did one 40-minutes set at tempo, averaging about 210 watts at HR of 159 (my zone 3 tops out at 162). The first five and the last 10 minutes were the hardest. For the first five minutes, my hip-flexors were telling me to go “F” myself due to some residual soreness, but then the muscles got used to the motion and that wasn’t an issue at all. I went through the first 30 minutes without any issues whatsoever, but as I crawled closer and closer to the 40-minute mark, I did hit a few dead spots and heard the familiar clunk. This only happened three or four times over the last 10 minutes, but it was still a sign of fatigue, which signals two things. First, more time on PCs is needed to build up stamina. Second, and most obvious, when I get tired, the pedal stroke gets sloppy.

The greatest benefit I feel I’m already getting from riding on PCs is my climbing feels much more comfortable. I’m not making a claim that I’m all of a sudden flying uphill. Given that I’m still in base, no serious hill training has yet taken place, but I am saying that my biomechanics are working better. I’m having a much easier time relaxing most of my upper body and just pedaling from the core. I’m very curious to see what will happen once I get to the build phase and actually start doing hill repeats on PCs. 

[Originally published on]

Friday, November 4, 2011

Powercranks, first time outdoors

A week or so ago, when I wrote out my training plan for this week, today was to be a day on Powercranks, and I was really hoping to make it a day outside. However, the forecast last night left much to be desired, and I went to bed convinced I’d have to spend an hour in my garage on a trainer. But luck was on my side, and the rains passed in the night, leaving a clear, but rather cold, morning – so the opportunity was there.

Originally, I planned to drive out to the polo fields with my bicycle and just do an hour of outdoor powercranking and drive back. But when I got ready, the whole process of loading the bike, driving, parking, unloading and then doing the whole thing in reverse seemed a bit much for 6:45 a.m. After looking at all the possibilities of what could go wrong if I rode from my house, and death or bodily injury having not popped up on my radar, I decided to just roll and see what happens.

Pics or it didn’t happen, right? Here you go:

Along JFK drive on the way home.

I’ll start with descending because when I roll from my house (which is on top of a hill), that’s kind of what I have to do first. I’m glad that the first time I got on PCs outdoors I was going downhill because clipping in with the crankarm down is a bit unusual, so the momentum gave me time to find the pedal. I have to admit that going downhill with both legs hanging down was a bit weird at first, but as I got used to the sensation, it actually felt good – both of my legs could relax and neither had to stay in the flexed position. I was afraid that balancing may be an issue, but it wasn’t, at least not today.

Then came the stop signs and the red lights. I quickly figured out that for stop signs - where I stop but don’t unclip because the stop is so brief - it’s best to pedal backward with one leg and then get started. The alternative is to come to the stop sign with one leg in the up position, but why stress it when you don’t have to? A plus of PCs is that when you pedal backwards, the chainrings don’t move, so there’s no risk of chain drop. Of course, there is a third option of starting with one leg and then picking up with the other when the first reaches 12 o'clock, but that's a lot of unnecessary pulling in what could be a high gear, or unnecessary shifting into a much lower gear than necessary.

For a red light, where I’d have to unclip, I made sure to start in a very easy gear. As I mentioned above, clipping in with the crankarm down is a bit tricky at first, and I wanted to make sure I could pedal with one leg for at least a few strokes to gain forward momentum. Once I had that figured out, the rest was simply a matter of getting the muscles to fire in proper sequence and keep it upright – the latter was never an issue.

Riding PCs outdoors is definitely different than on a trainer. Probably an obvious statement, but just in case you were wondering. The road comes as is and the terrain slowed me down, sped me up and not necessarily in the most expected ways. It’s easy to keep a good pedal stroke on a trainer, where I know when I will shift, when resistance will vary and when my cadence will change. Not so much outside. I had to pay attention to these changes and anticipate them to make sure I was in the proper gear and could maintain constant cadence if that was my goal, or change my cadence if that’s what I wanted to do.

I messed up quite a few times, but never for longer than just a few seconds and I was always able to recover quickly and get back into rhythm. I found that slowing the cadence down and going into a higher gear helped a lot to even out the pedal stroke, similar to how I started on the trainer. Then I could gradually go into a lower gear and speed up the cadence while keeping in rhythm.

About half way out to the polo fields, I realized that I was riding PCs like I was on a track bike – I always kept pedaling. “Why am I doing this?” – I thought to myself. So when the next little downhill came, I just let both legs down and coasted for a bit. It felt good! As I mentioned above, both legs relaxed and after five or so seconds of coasting, I was able to pick up the pedal stroke again. This was also great practice for starting to pedal from both legs being down and picking it up in rhythm.

Once on the polo fields, I just went around in a loop for about 20 minutes before turning around and heading back. It’s a flat .7-mile loop, so nothing exciting really happened, but given that the two longest stretches run east/west, the changes in tail/headwind meant I had to pay attention to my effort. Otherwise, when the tailwind would hit, it would become easier to pedal and a few times one of my legs would go a little faster and caused me to lose rhythm and gallop, but this was fairly easy to get used to and wasn’t an issue toward the end of my session.

One last item that I didn’t really have to deal with this morning - because I was never really going that fast or leaning my bike that much - is unweighing the inside leg when making a turn. It’s important to unweigh the inside leg as to not hit the crank on the ground. While my crank length is set to 145, the whole arm is about 190 (185 being the maximum adjustment).

In case you’re curious, yes, I did do the dolphin kick. It’s pretty neat, but better done in a low gear or on a downhill. In high gear, Newton’s second law of motion causes the bike to rock back and forth a bit – not very efficient. I also did it a number of times as I rolled back toward home on JFK, always either in the presence of other cyclists or when passing cars stopped at a stop sign. I figured I may as well give people something to talk about. Strangely, no one asked me about how I can do that.

On the way home, all I could really think about was going over Clayton on 17th Street. It averages about 14% for .1 miles – not long, but I was afraid that if I screwed up my pedal stroke, I wouldn’t be able to recover and would fall over. But I figured the worst thing that would happen is I would have to take the walk of shame up the hill with the bike – not a big deal.

As I began to climb up Stanyan to 17th Street, I started to gain more confidence. In fact, I was very surprised that climbing a steeper pitch, pedaling PCs felt no different than my regular cranks, but I knew that my muscles were not working in quite the same way. As I turned onto 17th, I had a bit of a downhill to let my legs hang – honestly, this feels so awesome, I think it was probably one of my favorite sensations of the whole ride. Then it was just two short but very steep blocks, and all downhill from there.

This was a great first ride outdoors on PCs, and now that I know I can navigate short steep streets of San Francisco, I’ll be getting out on them more often – and by that I mean that unless it’s pouring outside, I’m not getting on the trainer. Perhaps one of the days next week I’ll try to go a bit longer with a bit more climbing. By the time I hit my build phase, I hope to be training on them almost exclusively.

[Originally published on]

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

More on Powercranks

It's that time of the year for me where long rides are few and far between and burritos are frequent and abundant. After all, I need some fat to burn during those long base miles that will start in less than two weeks. In addition to regular gym workouts, I've also started training on Powercranks. You may have seen the post about my first training session last week. Today was session number four, and boy do I have some stuff to tell you. 

After the first three 30-minute sessions, I decided to take it up a bit and go for 45 minutes. One of the many things I love about the Powercranks (yes, I just used the "L" word), is that I'm actually looking forward to doing workouts on my trainer. I usually hate to sit on a trainer, alone, at home, creating a pool of sweat under my bike, but the challenge of turning PCs actually motivates me to do just that. I'm always curious as to how far I can push myself and how long I can go without screwing up my rhythm. 

That notwithstanding, sitting in one place doing exactly the same thing, even a very challenging thing, can get a bit stale, so I made up a routine for myself to work on my pedaling stroke and to hopefully adopt faster to PCs. 

I began with some steady pedaling under a moderate load for 10 minutes. My cadence was in the 80-90 range and my power was in the 150-200 (but I tried to stay closer to 150 as much as possible). Another element of difficulty I added to this workout was doing it in the small ring. If you think of a LT workout, that would seem counterintuitive, but PCs are actually easier to spin correctly (that being the key term) under a heavier load with very low cadence.  

After 10 minutes, I went into progressive cadence increases, while keeping my power as constant as possible. I began with a heavier gear and cadence of 65, pushing about 180-200 watts. Then, each minute for five minutes, I would increase by five to seven RPMs and shift into a lighter gear to maintain approximately the same watts. This way I could focus entirely on cadence and pedaling technique and not have to worry so much about muscle failure or excessive fatigue (still in prep period). This followed by 5 minutes of rest at the same effort as the warmup.

Another thing I love about PCs is that while resting, I'm still doing the skills workout. Even when I'm pedaling easy, I have to pedal correctly, so while the training is not under any heavy load, or very difficult (coordination-wise), the pedaling skills are still being worked. 

Then came time for some single-leg pedaling drills just to focus the mind on each leg independently. I did the following three sets. Three times with each leg for 30 seconds, followed by three minutes of rest. Then two times with each leg for one minute, again followed by three minutes of rest. And finally, I attempted once with each leg by two minutes, but this was at about minute 37 of the workout and I was starting to pedals squares by 1:20, so I cut it short to 90 seconds. Followed by another three minutes of recovery. 

I was surprised to see that when I went from single-leg pedaling drills to active recovery, where I had to pedal with both legs, it was actually easier to keep my legs in sync, as if each one still remembered what to do from a moment ago.

I finished off with a few spinups, starting from a cadence of about 80 with load that's moderate (200 watts), taking my cadence up as high as possible until my legs started to gallop - I was able to hit 150 a few times. 

I'm still in prep mode, so none of this was done under heavy load, as I'm still getting my brain trained to keep both my legs fully engaged and synced. My overall impression of tonight's workout was good. It felt much easier starting with PCs and getting in sync was much faster (within a couple revolutions), even in a much lighter gear. It is almost as if the body remembered what to do; that first moment of clipping in and starting to pedal was much more natural than the first time I tried PCs. I'm hoping that in a few more sessions, I'll be able to take the bike on the road with them and see how I do while in motion. 

[Originally published on on October 18, 2011]

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Powercranks - the first workout.

After some time off the bike, it’s now time to slowly move into the prep period before getting into some serious base miles down the line. This season, I’m introducing something completely new into my training routine, Powercranks. For those of you who never heard of them, they are cranks that hang neutrally (not opposite one another) and require both legs to make the “perfect” circle to get the crank around. If you’re not pedaling equally with both legs, you start to develop a gallop-type stroke or stall at a deadspot.

Today, was my first Powercranks workout, and after pedaling just for 30 minutes, I learned several things about my pedal stroke that I hope to improve in the months to come.

As I mentioned above, I’m in prep mode, so the workout I did today wasn’t as much about pushing a lot of watts or getting the legs worked, as it was about training my brain – something much harder. The plan was to pedal relatively easy for 30 minutes with some one-legged drills in between and see what happens during this virgin session.

Throughout the workout, I worked under the presumption that every pedaling error I made with Powercranks, I would have likewise made on regular cranks, but it would have gone unnoticed due to the other leg being able to compensate.

As recommended, I started with the shortest crank length possible on my Powercranks – 145 and began pedaling at a low cadence in a high gear just to get used to the motion of both legs moving independently. I was able to pedal relatively error free for the first six minutes. I did go out of sync a few times, and it was immediately noticeable as I felt one of my legs doing more work than the other because it was starting to do more work while waiting for the other leg to catch up. Or alternatively, it started turning too fast.

After six minutes, I did one 30-second drill with each leg, followed by a minute of regular pedaling and then another minute-long drill with each leg. Granted, considering I was on Powercranks, the whole workout was like one single-leg pedaling drill, but I found it helped to focus on each leg separately to get the motion correct and to get used to throwing my knee over the handlebars – a common way to describe a proper upstroke.

By the time I was done with the above, I found one weakness that I felt needed work. It was easy for me to start pedaling slowly and then pick up speed, but it was much more difficult to slow the cadence down, as my legs would slow down at different rates, resulting in an uneven pedal stroke and even causing me to stall at the top a few times.

Having discovered a weakness, I figured I’d work on that specific skill for the remainder of the workout. So I proceeded to pedal for several minutes, taking my cadence up 10-15 pedal strokes and then practicing bringing it down 10-15 strokes. After a few tries, it became easier to slow down the cadence without much break in the pedal stroke, but this is definitely a skill I that will require more work because if that’s how much stroke I’m losing each time cadence changes in a ride or a race, there is a lot of wasted motion and energy that can be put toward something better. Say, a winning sprint! It also required a lot of mental concentration when it was time to slow the legs down, something that cannot be wasted on pedaling in a race.

In the last few minutes of my 30-minute workout, I did another set of single-leg drills, which proved very informative, as my legs were now a bit fatigued. All of a sudden, I realized that having shorter cranks to start practicing with Powercranks was highly beneficial, as my stroke was short and I was able to turn a much smoother, efficient circle even at the end of the workout.

Additionally, as I went from pedaling with my left to pedaling with my right, I started hearing a lot of noise and clunks, which suggests that as in everything else, my left leg is the dominant one in cycling. This is likely an imbalance I’ve been riding with all these years, but now that I’ve been able to diagnose and have the tools to address it, getting equal output from both legs is something I can work on.

The plan going forward is to continue with 30-minute sessions for the next week or so, then go to 45-minute sessions, then hour-long sessions and finally be able to ride outside without stalling. Ideally, I’d like to be able to do most of my base training on Powercranks this season and continue using them for parts of my build phase.

Stay tuned for more!

[Originally published at on Oct. 11, 2011]

Saturday, August 27, 2011

size matters

Common sense. The longest crank you can turn will maximize your leverage, or more accurately in this situation "torque" over a given gear ratio. This thinking has lead to the common 165-175mm crank length. Leverage and torque are easy to comprehend. What is more complex and challenging to fully wrap your head around is power, or, the amount of work done as a function of time. The utmost concern of the dedicated cyclist is to optimize power output at a given fitness level, while maintaining an efficient position. Torque, I've found, is irrelevant. Old fashioned thinking lead me to believe that riding the longest crank that didn't hurt my knees was going to be fastest, and certainly best when the road turns upward. I now know that at least for me, this is not the case.

Five years of cycling culminated in the ability to average 19.5 mph. Nothing to write home about. In 4 months 172.5mm powercranks built me up to average over 21 mph, but more importantly allowed me to train knee pain free for the first time ever. As a bike messenger, an overuse injury would put me out of work. After hearing about Courtney Ogden winning an ironman on 145mm cranks and subsequently shortening to 115mm, I couldn't resist the urge to try out shorter cranks.

A quick google search revealed that my initial experiment would cost me 30$ for a set of 145mm sinz juniors bmx racing cranks. I was a little worried that changing my position on the bike and pedaling a drastically smaller circle (intended for 10 year old kids on bmx bikes) in the middle of my buildup for the 204 mile seattle to portland classic would spell disaster for my knees. I was ready to scrap the idea at the first sign of knee pain, and maybe try again when my training volume is reduced.

The first trip around the block was interesting, pedal stroke felt buttery smooth, difficult to "spin out" and it didn't feel like I lost any power, but they did feel strange. The next day, I went out on my first ride. My standard fitness testing route, 25 miles of rollers with a 2 mile hill that maxes at 10%. What I noticed most was how much smoother the short cranks are, and how comfortable I was in the drops. for the first time, I felt like I could ride in the drops all day long. My best ride on 172.5's put me at 21.06 miles in one hour, and the hill in 8min 14 sec. Rough wattage estimate for the hill 260. First time out with the 145's put me at 22.5 miles in an hour and the hill in 7min 34sec. Rough wattage estimate 292! Knees felt fine, I ordered a pair for my work bike. The next ride was 120 miles, I was amazed by how fresh I still felt after the ride.

The Seattle to Portland is not a race, but more akin to a marathon where the majority of the 10,000 participants are just there to finish. I was hoping to be in the top 100. I ended up finishing 4th, 6 min behind a recumbent rider and two guys who were working together the whole way even though I was riding solo for about 90 of the last 100 miles! The guy behind me was 20 min back.

It has been about 10 weeks since my first ride on 145's and I am continuing to see gains that I mostly atribute to the adaptation to shorter cranks. My new best ride on my standard training route put me at 23.02 miles in an hour and the hill in 6min 44sec. wattage estimate for the hill is 349. The way I see it, the advantages of short cranks are least apparent in cx where aerodynamics plays less of a role than being able to repeatedly pull hard out of corners. The first cyclocross preseason race of the year was this week, and I won on my 145mm sinz. This was my first race in 3 years, with no off road training, and the first cross race I've ever even finished.

I belive strongly enough in my experience with shorter cranks and their superiority at least for my genetic stew, that I sent my powercranks in to be irreversibly shortened to 145mm. I plan on experimenting even shorter to find my perfect length after I hit a plateau on 145's.

Stay tuned for updates regarding short powercrank adaptation, and gearing discussion.