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]