Sometimes you meet up with a piece of writing that articulates a philosophy you’ve lived but never been able to formally express. And when you read it, you know you’ve found your manifesto, off the shelf, ready to wear yet seemingly custom-tailored just for you.
That is more or less what happened to me when I spent an afternoon devouring Grant Petersen’s “Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike” (Workman Publishing, 2012).
If you love biking but are put off by the sport’s cultish addiction to high-tech gear, hardcore training regimens and professional racing garb, then reading this book could be your hallelujah moment too.
Petersen, founder of Rivendell Bicycle Works, a California manufacturer of handsome lugged steel bikes, wastes no time summarizing his “velosophy.”
“My main goal with this book is to point out what I see as bike racing’s bad influence on bicycles, equipment, and attitudes, and then undo it,” writes the one-time racer in his opening paragraph.
In other words, it’s high time to shed the shame of secretly hating clipless pedals and skinny tires, forego the slavish allegiance to fitness trackers and bike computers and reclaim the child-like joy of just riding a bike for no other reason than it is really, really fun.
Petersen’s tutorial for returning lost souls to an “unracer” purity follows in 89 easy-to-digest chapterettes, each overturning a problem brought on by bike racing’s ill-fitted sway over recreational cycling.
I don’t agree with all of Petersen’s ideas. For example, I’ll defer to experts who have a kinder, gentler take on carbohydrates for nutritional guidance, thank you very much. But the lion’s share rings so true to my experience that I want to call out some of my favorites. Perhaps these maxims will resonate with you too.
Short or long, all rides are good rides
Remember when you were glad to ride your bike a couple miles to the post office for an errand or down the street to share an ice cream cone with your best friend? Sadly, the 10-minute bike ride around the block, or any brief two-wheeling equivalent, has been tossed aside as not serious enough to bother. But getting on your bike for an easy-going 10-, 20- or 40-minute spin is one of the best ways to take a break, clear your head and is a lot healthier than eating chips or updating your social media post for the umpteenth time. Plus, by being open to short, slow rides, you widen the circle of friends and family who will want to bike with you.
Scrap the racing duds
Professional bike racers wear tight-fitting jerseys and shorts to gain a few seconds of speed and to advertise for their sponsors. For the rest of us, there is little aerodynamic advantage in the form and no economic advantage in being a human billboard (unless of course, you own shares in the company your clothes are touting).
Loose-fitting shirts and shorts with good air circulation and flat seams will keep you far more comfortable on the bike, and feeling comfortable will help you ride better. While padded shorts are helpful, Petersen argues, and my butt and groin agree here as well, for shorter rides, they are not necessary. If you are afraid you’ll miss the jersey pockets for your snacks, you’re better off with a bike bag anyway, as your bananas are less likely to bruise and your granola bars are less susceptible to crumbling (see below).
Mash, don’t pedal circles
Experts have been telling amateur cyclists for years to pedal in circles, or to use as much force to pull up on your pedal during the upstroke as you do to push down on the pedal during the downstroke. But Petersen argues, and my legs concur, that this is an awkward and physiologically impossible motion to sustain for the long haul. You are better off putting most of your energy in the downstroke (mashing) leg, and perhaps letting up a bit on the upstroke leg so it doesn’t add unnecessary resistance.
Skip the clipless if you want
If mashing is preferable to pedaling circles, then do you really need to have your foot secured to the pedal all the time via clipless pedals and shoes with cleats or toe cages and straps? If your pedal surface is wide enough and your shoes are stiff and grippy enough, then probably not.
In the early days of racing, bikes had fixed gears, which meant the racers’ legs were spinning all the time. Keeping the feet secured to the pedals via clips and straps or clipless shoes and pedals made sense. But thanks to the freewheel, bikes aren’t made like that anymore.
While I hate clipless racing shoes because they are totally useless for walking like a reasonable human being, I do sometimes like to have my feet secured to the pedal if it’s raining outside or I’m going down a lot of steep hills. So I have pedals that are flat on one side and clipless on the other. If I know I’m going to clip in, I wear my walkable clipless shoes.
More and more, I just bike in the shoes or boots I happen to be wearing and use the flat side of the pedal. My foot is happier because I can exercise different muscles depending on where I place it on the pedal, and off the bike, I am wearing the shoe I really want to wear when I arrive to my destination.
Most bikes have far more gears than are actually needed
How many gears does your bike have? And how many do you actually use most of the time? If you are like most people, you could do away with at least half your gears. Keep that in mind if you are shopping for a new bike or considering upgrading your gearing. According to Petersen, most bikers who ride on a variety of terrains can get by fine with eight gears. He recommends a rear cassette that has at least a two-tooth jump between cogs. A one-tooth jump won’t register much difference in perceived ease or difficulty.
Bike bags are better than sweaty backs
When most of us leave the house, we carry at least three things: keys, wallet, phone. On a bike ride, even if just to the store, it’s nice to have a few extras, like a spare tube, small pump and tools to fix a flat, an extra shirt or jacket, and a lock. It’s also nice to be able to bring a few extras home, like a quart of milk, a library book or a new pair of shoes. All of that will not fit in your jersey back pockets. While a back pack is more practical, a pannier, trunk bag, handlebar bag or basket attached to the bike is even better.
Biking should not be your only exercise
While biking is great for your legs and butt muscles and cardio-vascular system, it does little to improve the rest of your body. If you want to be truly healthy and fit, you need other forms of exercise too. Even if it means shaving miles or hours off your weekly bike riding schedule, be sure to add a variety of movement on a regular basis to strengthen, stretch and challenge your entire body and mind and feed your soul. Whatever you do -- yoga, weight training, ballroom dancing, karate, pickle ball -- will make you a fitter, happier and a more well-rounded cyclist.
Take an unracer approach to keeping score
Everybody likes to “win,” racers and unracers unlike. The secret to making sure you as an unracer stay ahead is to redefine your event so the metrics finish in your favor. Example: If your racer friend brags about how many miles she covers in a weekend, counter her boast with how many days in the month you rode your bike and had a great time. If you “ride your bike on your terms, not anyone else’s,” you will always come out ahead.
“Your bike is a toy. Have fun with it,” writes Petersen. Enough said.