Nov 29, 2010

Cycling hibernation: what’s a cyclist to do when it’s just too cold to ride?

This post was inspired by a question to the previous entry, so I though I’d delve deeper and give you a bit more food for thought this winter.
First, let me start off by saying that “too cold” is a very relative term. Some people draw the line when the mercury drops below 40, while others equip their stallions to navigate snow-ridden parts of the world, not to mention there is this weird sport of cyclocross that seems to strive this time of year (more on cyclocross later). Living in California, I’m fortunate to be able to ride year round, as my “too cold” threshold is way lower than it ever gets here, and even if it should drop below freezing, it won’t be for longer than a day or so, if at all. One of the reasons I can tolerate cold temperatures so well is that before coming out here in January of this year, I spent 16 winters in Chicago, so I know very well what most of you are going through in these tough months of cycling hiatus. 

The first step to maintaining your shape (yes, round is a shape, but that’s not what we’re going for here) during the winter is to find a cross training activity you enjoy. It can be anything from lifting weights to cross country skiing. The key, however, is that you must enjoy what you’re doing, otherwise you’ll simply go nuts forcing yourself into an activity you detest for three months out of the year, and if you happen to be unfortunate enough to live in a place like Minnesota, Main or Alaska (yikes!), that period might be even longer. 

Now, if you’ve already picked a favorite cross training activity and are eagerly burning off those Thanksgiving calories, but your legs keep turning in perfect circles as you sleep because you miss pedaling so much, there are indoor options. Most of the indoor trainers I’ll be describing below will require you to use both your wheels, and for most of them, I would suggest getting a training tire. I’ll be sure to point out the trainers to which this advice does not apply as I go through them.

The basic trainer: These come in all shapes and sizes and will generally vary from about $75 to $200 in price new. Anything below will probably not last you more than one season and anything above is excessive, in my opinion. Personally, I prefer magnetic trainers because they are generally easier to set up and I can control resistance by shifting gears as I would on the road, as opposed to a separate lever attached to my handlebars, connected via cable to the trainer. This is the newer model of the kind I own.
One downside of a magnetic trainer is that they tend to be noisier than their non-magnetic counterparts. So if you are the type who likes to get her pedaling done at 6 in the morning and you happen to have a grumpy spouse or significant other, you may want to take that into account. Of course, if they are sleeping upstairs and your trainer is in the basement, that’s not really an issue.

The rollers: This is a good option for those of you looking for a more realistic feel of a bicycle and wanting to work on your balance and handling skills as you pedal the winter pounds away. There is not much to say about this other than it works, it's for the more adventurous among you and if you happen to have a Ming Dynasty vase in your house, you might want to keep it as far from this contraption as you can. Below are two videos, the first shows how it's supposed to work, and the second shows what happens when things don't go as smoothly.

One suggestion if you are going to try this is to put the rollers in a doorway, so you can use both sides for balance before you get the hang of things. Also, with this type of trainer, there is no need to swap your rear tire, but if you've got racing tires on, I'd suggest opting for a cheaper pair, as wearing out race tires can get kind of pricey.

The power trainer: For those of you with a larger budget, the options get significantly more attractive. There are currently several trainers on the market that use power to help you more narrowly focus your training goals by focusing on wattage, as opposed to heart rate. The two most popular options are the Computrainer (CT) and the Real Axiom. I've used the CT and have heard some feedback from those who've used the Real Axiom. Both focus you on targeting your Lactose Threshold (LT) and working against that number through a variety of workouts. You can set the resistance you want to work against, or (at least on the CT) you can use your gears to vary the load and the CT will tell you how many watts you are pushing. You can also load famous courses from the Tour de France and ride where the PROs ride in the comfort of your living room. Even better if you can hook up either of those machines to your big screen TV or a large computer monitor. After all, looking at a small display of even the most expensive trainer can get really boring. So if you opt for this option, try to make it as entertaining for yourself as possible.

Something new: Recently, a new type of trainer hit the market - the LeMond Trainer. This appears to be a revolutionary machine in that it gives you everything that the two I described above do, at a fraction of the cost. Another plus is that it doesn't require a rear wheel at all, just take off your wheel, prop whatever bike you have onto the spindles of the bike and go for it. I wish that LeMond would send me one so I could try it out, but I'm not holding my breath. Though if they would send me one, I'd only use it to write a very nice (meaning professional, not necessarily favorable) review and send it back. Remember, I'm in California, and have no need to be inside on a trainer with any regularity. However, I have heard feedback from others who've used the machine and it seems to be as great as advertised, so if you have a chance to try it out or get your hands on it, I would strongly suggest trying it out before opting for the CT or the Real Axiom. The one negative of the LeMond is that it appears to lack the interactivity and the A/V capability of it's costlier counterparts. But for those wanting a power trainer on a budget, it seems to fit the bill.

Indoor training facilities: In Chicago, I used to train at Vision Quest with Robbie Ventura during the winter months and liked it so much, I continued going for a once a week butt-kicking during the year. It's a great facility where you bring your own bike, hook it up to a CT and watch your watts grow on huge wide-screen TVs. When moved to San Francisco, I figured now way something like this exists here, where you can ride outside year round, but alas. As I became hungry for that once-a-week indoor workout, I discovered M2. It is run by Michael McCormack, a two-time Iron Man winner. The class is somewhat similar to VQ, but is on stationary CycleOps power trainers that don't require I drag my bike to each workout, which is a huge plus. If an indoor workout of this sort is something you think you might be interested in, do a search in your area and I'm sure you'll be able to find at least one facility geared toward cyclists and/or triathletes. I suggest going in for a trial class to see if the atmosphere and the workout is something that is congruent with your goals.

Do what you can to stave off the winter bike blues and keep it interesting for yourself. Most importantly, try not to burn out on winter training before the spring melts the snow and you're ready to hit the road.