by Michael Heffler, June 2013
Cyclists occasionally ask me what it takes to be a good hill climber. My current answer is be young and in good shape. If you can’t do that than it’s the same answer as in the old joke about how do I get to Carnegie Hall: Practice! Practice! Practice!
There’s a more important question that we should be asking as the summer approaches and rides get longer: “How do we make sure we ride safely when we get tired?” Michael Johnson, owner of Wheelfine Imports on Route 518 just outside Lambertville, NJ, and I were discussing this recently. I was doing the listening.
“The most important thing to do when you ride, especially when you get tired, is make sure your head is up, “ Michael said. “I used to tell people that but couldn’t tell them how. Now I have a technique from yoga that will make sure your posture is correct and your head up so you can always see where you’re going.”
“Raise your shoulders up, then push them back and down,” Michael demonstrated as he spoke. “Have your shoulder blades together and your head will be up.”
Try it and you’ll see. Many of us spend a lot of time working at a keyboard or at a desk where our head is down and our shoulders are slumped. Raise your shoulders up, push them back and then down and you are immediately sitting up straight. It works at a desk as well as on a bike. On a bike, when you start getting tired it’s a good thing to remember and put into practice. It doesn’t take long to get in trouble if your head isn’t up watching where you’re going.
The second thing Michael Johnson recently taught me was that when you’re riding you use different muscles based upon your posture. When you sit up at more than a 45-degree angle most of your pedaling power comes from your quadriceps. When you’re flatter and more stretched out, at a less than 45-degree angle, your calves, hamstrings, glutes and lower back muscles contribute much more to your effort.
His intention in telling me the 45-degree angle information was to help me get faster. That isn’t going to happen. The advice helped anyway. I went out for a long ride on one of the first hot, humid days we’ve had and got a bit dehydrated, even though I was hydrating regularly. About 10 miles from my home, tired and parched, I didn’t know how I would get up Phillips Barber Hill and its 17 percent grade.
With the new information about using different muscles I lowered and flattened my back and started riding, holding the brake hoods or in the drops and I got a second wind. Muscles that had been coasting were now contributing more and my energy level improved. I kept drinking and stayed low, and the ride progressed nicely. After a few miles of flat back riding I had no more than the usual problem climbing a steep hill after a long ride.
Riding this way is a learned skill. Michael gave me some stretches to do to help get into different postures on the bike. Bending at the waist and hips while your riding, taking the pressure off of your arms, hands and shoulders, makes you more comfortable and reduces the risk of stress injuries. Stretching has become part of my post-ride and weekly workout routine. Without stretching my hamstrings get tight resulting in a dull pain on the left side of my lower back.
Michael’s stretch that helps with hip flexibility begins by sitting on the edge of a chair with your legs spread apart. Your lower leg perpendicular to the floor, heels flat on the floor, and your upper leg is parallel to the floor. Bend over at the waist with your arms folded in front of you and have your elbows stretch toward the floor. Hold that for about 2 minutes.
That pose will stretch your lower back, various muscles in your legs, and help lubricate the hip flexibility. It’s pretty simple to just sit there and bend over for a couple of minutes. Before doing that stretch I was not able to ride in the drops. It was too much of a strain on my neck. Now with the added flexibility I can ride in the drops, although I still prefer to be higher up for comfort and to be able to see more.
We can’t all be young and in good shape. Whether young, old or in between, remember to keep your shoulders up, back and down and bend at the waist. Enjoy the ride!