As the days grow shorter, rainier and colder, many folks get into a nesting mode and begin the time-honored winter activities of fiddling with the thermostat, lugging wooden pellets around the house and searching for and then buying, once again, an ice scraper. I’m a little different. I go out to my garage and look at my six bicycles, dormant and stabled for the winter. Unlike some of the intrepid souls on Vashon who will ride a bicycle in conditions up to and including a zombie apocalypse, I have my limits. However, I do give it a good try before parking my boneshakers.
To wit, I have purchased every conceivable product to make riding in the cold, wind and rain more comfortable. By the time I get in the saddle, I look not unlike the Michelin Man with layer after layer of high- and low-tech fibers. But try as I might, the gloomy skies, roads slick from decaying leaves and a sun that seems to set before lunch all conspire to get me off the bike. Invariably I end up plopped on the couch becoming such an indolent retch that even an under-achieving sloth would call me a lazy bum. By the time spring rolls around, I find myself still on the couch in my whitey-tighties, now looking exactly like the Michelin Man.
The leg muscles that once propelled me around the island in the Passport to Pain ride are now as thin as guitar strings and just as tight. My once robust aerobic capacity now comes from a little oxygen tank on wheels. I can look forward to months of re-losing weight, re-raising my lactic threshold and re-awakening the snap in my long quiescent muscle synapses.
While this metamorphic change from couch potato to bike potato and finally seasoned bike rider is nothing new for me, it hasn’t gone unnoticed that each year it takes a little longer to get where I want to be. I have vowed that this winter season will be different. So in between watching cat videos on YouTube, I have mapped out a grand strategy for combating my annual slump. If my logic holds true I think this will help me as well as other Vashon cyclists who want to hit the ground running in the spring.
From even a casual review of the sports literature, one specific theme seems to crop up over and over. Whether it is skiing or racket sports or competitive knitting, virtually any activity can benefit from the development of core muscles. These unsung heroes of posture are vital to balance, form and technique. This is particularly true with cycling. Whether you are out of the saddle grinding up a hill or in a tucked position clawing into a headwind, a well-developed core means less fatigue both physically and mentally. During the cycling season, core muscles seem to get scant attention, so developing them during the off-season makes perfect sense. There are a myriad of exercises to develop the core. I tend to go with static exercises like planks augmented with crunches. (Whatever you do, do not buy an abdominal exercise machine from a late-night infomercial, especially if you’ve had some wine — trust me on this one.)
And what better way to perfect your technique than a well-planned regimen of indoor cycling? I have tried my hand at indoor cycling many times in the past, and it always plays out the same way. I set up the bike in a spare bedroom and for an hour spin my legs while staring at all the unwanted things that get put in a spare bedroom. Yet every year monotony and the siren call from the couch win out. But I can still boast some improvement before I throw in the towel. I am now much better at cycling in a spare bedroom, which unfortunately does not translate to outdoor cycling.
Thankfully much has changed with indoor cycling, making it much more enjoyable and beneficial. For instance, through studies in exercise physiology we now know that much of the hard work of the previous year need not be lost. A few hours a week on an indoor trainer can save much of the fitness level attained. We also know that the one-workout-fits-all philosophy is passé. Indoor training sessions can now be designed to achieve specific goals such as weight loss, hill climbing, sprinting or endurance. These indoor sessions are intended to translate seamlessly to outdoor cycling.
And just as the philosophy behind indoor training has changed, so has the equipment itself. In the olden days you would hook a trainer to the back wheel of your bike and pedal for a prescribed amount of time. Now with modern indoor trainers, you can have real-time feedback for not only speed and distance, but also cadence, heart rate and power output. In fact, by adding a computer monitor you can participate in virtual reality biking where you can race against your favorite professional cyclist (assuming they haven’t been banned from the sport). With this new technology the only things missing are loose dogs and rumble strips.
More interesting to me, however, is indoor cycling as a group exercise. Since no one gets left behind, there is more opportunity for camaraderie and encouragement. Also, with no traffic or potholes to watch out for, a rider can focus on fine tuning things like the perfect pedal stroke or proper breathing technique. And frankly nothing gets me motivated to get out of bed and over to the gym than the thought of someone waiting for me. Especially when there’s a chance they won’t show up and I can tease them mercilessly!
— Chris Austin, an avid cyclist, is The Beachcomber’s circulation manager. He is also author of “The Bottom Bracket” and “Forever Fat,” which can be found at www.chrisaustinbooks.com.