Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Clipless pedals explained

Even when you’re comfortable in the saddle and regularly racking up big miles on your bike, you might find there is one last hurdle to overcome: clipless pedals. For some reason, it’s the one aspect of modern cycling that seems to unnerve the uninitiated. However, clipless pedals used in conjunction with stiffly-soled shoes will make your pedalling significantly more efficient and — once you’ve had some sensible practice getting used to the clip in and clip out system — really aren’t that scary. 

First of all, why do we call them ‘clipless’ pedals when you have to clip them in and out? Well, they don’t require toe-clips and straps like old-school racing bike pedals did — and those you really couldn’t get your feet out of without some difficulty!

Although there are many different makes of clipless pedals available, they all work in essentially the same way. On the bottom of the cycling shoe is a cleat, which is pushed into the spring-loaded jaws on the pedal. To remove the cleat, the rider simply twists their foot to one side, and the cleat will disengage. Most pedals will allow you to adjust the spring tension so that the forces needed to engage and disengage can be set to suit you.

There are two general types of pedal and cleat: road specific or those suitable for mountain bike, touring or commuting. Road bike pedals and cleats offer a broader and more secure platform, allowing you to get more efficient power out, but road bike shoes with cleats are harder to walk in. Mountain bike, touring and commuting pedals might not be quite so efficient, but they tend to be easier to use and the cleats are often recessed into the shoes, allowing decent ‘walk-ability’ off the bike.

If you’ve never used clipless pedals before, we’d probably suggest starting off with a relatively inexpensive pair of double-sided clipless pedals suited for mountain biking.

Getting started
Once you’ve bought pedals and cleats, you will have to fit them. Putting on a pair of new pedals is easy enough — just remember the left-hand pedal is reverse threaded, and it’s also a good idea to put some grease or PTFE tape on the thread so they’ll be removable in years to come. Then you have to fit the cleats to your shoes. This is important to get right, but also quite easy:

1. Find the ball of your foot and mark it on the side of your shoe.
2. Line up this mark with the middle of the cleat.
3. Now sit on a table edge so that your hips, knees and ankles are 90 degrees to each other. Look at the angle your feet hang at and try to position your cleats so this is replicated on the bike. You may well find that your feet aren’t pointing straight ahead, but don’t worry, if that’s natural for you, go with it.
4. Screw in the cleat bolts nice and tight once you’re happy you’ve got the cleats in the right position. When you go out for a ride if you find your foot position isn’t comfortable or natural, don’t be afraid to tweak the cleat position.
Before heading out on the open road for the first time it’s very important to get used to clipping in and out of your pedals safely. Clipless pedals are nothing to be afraid of, but the busy highway is nowhere to be testing things out! Try to find somewhere safe, perhaps on a slight downhill slope, to practice on. Locate the cleat by sliding your shoe forwards and down the pedal. Once you’ve positioned the cleat onto the sprung mechanism on top of the pedal, push down with the back of your foot, and the cleat will force the spring open. The cleat will lock into place with a ‘click’. To disengage, twist your heel outwards.
The easiest way to start is to make sure one foot is clipped in before you pedal off. You can then catch and clip in to the other pedal as it comes round. This is why it might be a good idea to use double-sided pedals to begin with — you don’t have to worry about having the correct side of the pedal facing upwards.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Make your road bike fit you just right

Having a well-fitting bicycle is vital for two reasons. Firstly, to fully enjoy your time in the saddle without creating injuries or falling into any bad cycling habits. And secondly, to maximise your power output. Setting your position does take a little bit of time, but it will provide a solid basis from which you can adjust things as your riding develops.

Before even buying a road bike, though, it’s crucial to have some idea about what size you’ll need. That’s not quite as easy as it sounds, because different road bike brands can use different ways to measure their bikes. Some use the traditional method of seat tube length: where a ‘57cm’ frame would refer to the distance between centre of bottom bracket and top of seat tube. Others use effective horizontal top tube length: where a ‘57cm’ frame would refer to the distance between centre of seat tube cross-section and centre of head tube cross-section. Others use strange hybrid systems.

Once you know what effective horizontal top tube length you need, it’s probably best you use that as your reference size and consult the geometry charts you’ll find on bike manufacturers’ websites to choose the model that suits you most closely. Then, to get your bike to fit you absolutely perfectly will require a process of subtle tweaking. However, follow the pointers below and you will quickly come close to having a well-fitting bike.


Start tweaking

Comfort on a road bike, especially when it comes to long rides, is all about reach. There’s a very simple way to see if you are too stretched or too hunched up: get on the bike, take hold of the bottom of the drop handlebars and look down. If the bars are set correctly, you shouldn’t be able to see the front wheel hub because the bars will be in the way. If you can see the hub in front of the handlebars, you’ll need a longer stem; if the hub’s behind the bars, you’ll need a shorter stem.

Handlebar height is a much more personal preference. If you’re new to drop-handlebar road bikes you may feel more comfortable being slightly higher, whereas experienced riders might appreciate the added speed that comes with being lower. In any case, handlebar height is an easy thing to adjust by altering the position of stem and spaces on the steerer tube.

Having the correct saddle height is often seen as the most important thing on a new bike — setting it correctly will fully utilise all the power generated by your legs and prevent injury. According to triple Tour de France winner Greg LeMond, one way to do that is to measure your inside leg from crotch to floor when not wearing shoes, then multiply this by 0.883. The resulting figure provides a rough idea of your ideal measurement from the centre of the bottom bracket to the top of the saddle.

Once you’ve set your saddle height using the ‘0.883 of inside leg’ formula, you can hone its position further. Ask a helper to watch from the side while you pedal on a turbo-trainer (or pedal backwards while stationary). Ideally, with your foot at the bottom of its stroke you want to have a very slight bend at the knee — it must not be locked straight. Then ask your helper to watch from behind. If your hips are rocking from side to side, the saddle is too high — ideally you want your hips stay nice and level — however, having the saddle a fraction too high is better than having it too low.

Ultimately, though, great bike fit is about personal comfort, so do experiment a little. Adjust things only by very small increments each time and see what works for you.




Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Tyres — why thinner isn’t always better

To non-cyclists road bikes have two ingredients that almost always raise comments: saddles ‘like razor blades’ and super-thin tyres. Those razor-blade saddles aren’t that uncomfortable at all, at least not after novice bottoms have gone through a little bedding-in process. And thin tyres are pretty self-explanatory — the thinner they are, the quicker they must go, surely?

Er… well…

Look at almost any current range of mass-produced road bikes and you will find an increasing trend among manufacturers to fit tyres with a width of 25c rather than the established favourite of 23c. But why is this?

First of all, let’s understand why 23c became the standard choice on new road bikes. One notion you will often find us mentioning in this blog is that in the road bike market, public purchasing trends are often dictated by what pro riders use. That is to say, most people who hop aboard a road bike dream of being in the Tour de France and want to ride essentially the same kit as the Froomes and Wiggos of this world.

To top racers the advantages of thin tyres are relevant. Less rubber means lighter weight, which is particularly important because this weight is found at the wheel rim, which affects acceleration. The small width also reduces air drag, helping improve aerodynamics, particularly at speeds of 25mph or more. Of course the pros use top-end, often prototype versions of their tyre supplier’s products, but the 23c standard was a pretty good facsimile for amateur road riders.

However, now, with the prevalence of sportive bikes, speedy commuters, and more multi-purpose drop-bar machines, those catchall terms, and catchall spec choices look a little bit basic. We should mention at this point that even bikes now built for pro riders make a great play of their ‘comfort’ factor: recognising on one hand the idea that even an elite racing cyclist will expend less unnecessary energy just coping with road conditions if he or she is comfortable; and on the other, that the vast majority of amateur road cyclists now aren’t the experienced, one might say ‘grizzled’, club riders of yesteryear.

So 25c tyres are staking their claim as first choice on new road bikes. It’s easy to accept that with a larger capacity they might be a little more comfortable, but surely they’re equally a small bit slower?

Not necessarily.

Fatter tyres can actually offer better speed, at least below 20mph where the vast majority of sportive and leisure riders pedal. Writing in Cycling Weekly earlier this year, Richard Hallett pointed out that:
“A two millimetre increase in tyre size, equates to a nine per cent increase in tyre radius and, therefore, an 18 per cent increase in tyre air volume. For comfort, the fatter tyre can be inflated to roughly 5psi less for the same sensation of road surface imperfections.” This wider tyre with reduced pressure will also offer better grip than a 2mm-thinner tyre.
However, if you inflate both 23c and 25c tyres to the same pressure, they will actually share the same size contact patch with the road. But because the bigger tyre is wider, its contact patch will be correspondingly slightly shorter. This, Hallett says: “creates less tyre carcass deflection than the long, narrow patch of a thinner tyre, and reduces rolling resistance loss.” Which means wider tyres are just a little bit quicker.
It’s true, wider tyres are heavier, but there’s also another advantage with bigger rubber: you’re less likely to suffer from pinch flats. OK, it’s a slightly longer-term look at speed, but having to stop to change a puncture puts a significant dent on anyone’s sportive standard or Strava segment.
However, one word of caution. If you’re a road bike rider already, the tyre world isn’t entirely your oyster — road cyclists are still constrained by the tyre clearances already built into their bike frames. But with more and more mainstream road bike brands purposely building their frames with enough tyre clearance to fit up to 32c rubber, the option is there for many people to experiment with wider tyres.
So wider tyres = faster riding? Potentially yes — plus more comfortable and more secure riding, too.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Hydraulic braking — the future for bikes?

Mountain bikers have known it for years: cable operated brakes are OK, but when it comes to power and feel, hydraulic brakes are way ahead. So why — up until now — have hydraulic brakes rarely been seen on road bikes?

By far the biggest factor that leads popular fashion in road cycling is the kit choice made by pro riders, and until recently hydraulic brakes have been too heavy for their needs. Rather than requiring just levers, cables and calipers, hydraulic systems need bigger lever housings with brake fluid reservoirs and master cylinders, hoses full of fluid, and calipers with slave cylinders. However, now that top-end race bikes are happily able to reach weights that undercut UCI regulation minimums, there’s a bit of spare mass to play with.

Meanwhile, the current on-trend desire for marginal gains means that riders want to maximise their potential on the way down a hill, as well as up. That all means that hydraulic brake systems are finally suitable for elite road cyclists — and therefore, the rest of us, too.

So what are those gains? The great advantages of hydraulic disc brakes are consistency in any weather — they don’t slip on the rim — and modulation. Modulation is supremely important and it refers to a brake’s ability to accurately reflect and inform a rider about how much stopping power they are exerting. Ultimately, good modulation allows the rider to do anything from scrubbing off a little speed, to achieving the zenith of the brake’s stopping ability without locking the wheels up.

That ability to avoid locking up wheels is particularly relevant to road bikes, where the small contact patch between thin tyre and smooth road may be much more prone to losing traction than a fat, knobbly off-road tyre. In practice, the current range of hydraulic brakes are so good, and so well-modulated, that wheel lock-up should be easily avoided.


The options

Of course, because hydraulic systems are such a part of mountain biking, people expect hydraulic to also mean disc brakes. However, last year American component brand SRAM launched two new road hydraulic brake systems. One was called ‘HRD’, and as expected featured discs. The other — called ‘HRR’ — working on the rim in much the same way as a conventional caliper brake, but offering the same level of modulation as hydraulic disc brakes, and far more effective power than cable-operated calipers. It was a new development for mass-produced road bikes, although firms such as Magura have been making specialist hydraulic rims brakes for some time.

Initially both SRAM’s hydraulic rim and disc brakes were only available with its top-level Red 22 groupset. However, for 2015 the hydraulic options have been expanded to form what SRAM is calling it’s ‘HydroR range’ of four complete hydraulic braking road bike groupsets — Red, Force, Force CX1 and Rival. The Force CX1 groupset only offers hydraulic discs, but the other three groupsets will provide a choice of disc or hydraulic rim brakes.
For existing SRAM users looking for an aftermarket option, there’s also the standalone S-700 HRR hydraulic rim or disc brake system, which is compatible with SRAM’s 10-speed mechanical groupsets. At a RRP cost of either £302 per wheel for hydraulic rims brakes, or £356 per wheel for hydraulic discs including the rotor, it’s not particularly cheap, but it does offer all the benefits of disc brakes without having to go to the even greater expense of buying a whole new groupset.
Not to be outdone, earlier this year Shimano also released a disc brake option that would allow owners of existing Shimano mechanical groupsets to upgrade to hydraulic brakes. Shimano already has the R785 range of hydraulic disc brake that works with its electronic shifting ranges, but the new RS685 hydraulic disc brake system due out this month is compatible with any of Shimano’s 11-speed mechanical groupsets.
As an aftermarket product it will cost RRP £469.99 — which includes a pair of shifters, fully bled hoses and calipers, but doesn’t include disc brake rotors or adaptors. However on new complete-build bikes it’s expected the cost will be roughly equivalent to going up a level in a groupset. And industry insiders expect it to be pretty widely adopted on new bikes, too.
So is hydraulic braking the future for road bikes? Not at all, it’s here already. When will you go hydro?