COLUMNS The Bike Madame

Triumph Over Lycra: When Commuters Get the Urge to Compete

At the sight of a brightly colored, faster-than-light object growing larger in my rear-view mirror, I resign myself to being passed by a competition cyclist excited to be on the road after a winter confined to indoor training. My husband, Seth Goldstein, has a different reaction. Deep in his normally mild-mannered brain, a velocity gland releases a chemical that smells like burning rubber and activates the urge to race with the jet-propelled rider.

Riding and racing vintage styleHaving spent his youth training with Olympic cycling hopefuls and endowed with a greyhound’s physique, Seth is equipped to give the speedsters a run for their money. I, on the other hand, travel at a single speed—cruising—all day with no ill effects or need for glowing green energy-renewing concoctions.

If the need for speed comes upon you at the approach of a human missile, here are Seth’s tips for coming in first and defending the honor of commuters everywhere.

Shift strategically. For me, shifting gears has always been a pragmatic matter: lower gears for going uphill or fighting wind and higher gears for going downhill or cruising on flats. As the masters of spin like Seth know, using a lower gear, and hence adopting a higher cadence, produces rapid acceleration. Upon reaching the desired speed, you can shift to a higher gear for more power—and less effort at maintaining your speed. Familiarizing yourself with your gears will yield the best combination for you.

Develop your cruising speed. Seth has found that many racers are sprinters: they’ll accelerate to zip by the pokey (or so they assume) commuter in waterproof clothing but then slow down once they’re a blur in the distance. Seth’s secret to keeping up is to train for endurance. Practice accelerating to a comfortable cruising speed and see how long you can keep it up. Your aim is to encourage your competitor to drop by the wayside because you can maintain that speed longer than he/she can. Depending upon the kind of race your Spandex-wearing compatriot is preparing for, as a commuter, you might already have an endurance edge from riding longer distances on a regular basis.

Practice tactical eating. A pre-ride meal that emphasizes complex carbohydrates (vegetables and fruits), protein, and healthy fat will give you the long-haul energy you need, but bring along something for a quick spurt of energy, such as dried fruits or an energy bar. (Always check with your health care provider before adopting a new diet.) The sprinting style of riding requires more frequent refueling so you can summon those reserves.

Stand up for yourself. When accelerating, Seth leans into his pedals for more power. If he’s on his recumbent bike, he sits back and pushes against the seat (counterintuitive for upright bike riders but ergonomic for a reclining bike). Leaning forward, rather than standing fully, can be enough to blast off without going off course if you have concerns about balance.

Alas, genetics plays a role. The aerodynamic people who zip by me (but not Seth) have more fast-twitch muscle fiber, which makes racing come naturally. Sports-specific training can improve your chances, but with my mesomorph body type and years of attempting to go faster than the “mellow” setting, I’ve accepted that cheetah cycling isn’t my forte. When the rainbow-colored projectile explodes over the horizon, I watch Seth take off and eventually catch up to him as he’s enjoying his well-deserved energy bar at the end of the impromptu competition.

Then there’s the jet pack you can purchase online…