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Stupid Bike Questions
October 22, 2012 12:00 PM   Subscribe

I've started my bike a little more seriously, and I have a few questions for the more experienced cyclists of the green.

I ride a heavy Gitane road bike (super high tech in the 1980s!) with friction shifters. I bought it for $150 three years ago, and it definitely doesn't owe me anything. It's not a bad commuter bike, but it's limited in it's use for recreational/more sporty cycling. But I am also a weakling, and I think that riding on a heavy, pain in the ass bike might toughen me up. I'm planning on buying a new bike a few months from now (birthday!), but until then, please help me with the following:

There are no hex screws on my bike, and for whatever reason, the bike shop I visited yesterday couldn't mount a water bottle cage to my seat post. They suggested putting a water bottle cage on my handle bars. I didn't like that idea, and I rode around with two water bottles in a backpack and now my neck feels weird. Are there ways to mount water bottle cages to super old school road bikes? I've been thinking about getting a camelbak for non-bike reasons for a while, but if there's a cheaper solution, I'd love to hear it.

Down tube Friction shifters: Hate them, but LA is flat enough that I usually just bomb away in one gear. But trying to shift going uphill is so, so hard. Like, I lost concentration and almost fell off the bike trying to find the right gear. Is there something wrong with my shifters, or is this just the nature of the beast? I ended up walking my bike uphill (shame alert!) because I couldn't deal with shifting in traffic. I assume the solution is just to build up mad leg muscles and not have to shift, but until then . . . any suggestions? I find that standing up on the pedals on a longer climb uphill just sort of ruins my rhythm, but I can't stay seated if I can't shift.

Riding in the drops: Love it on a bike path, hate it in traffic. I just feel like I can't really see what's going on around me, but it's definitely the most efficient way to ride, and it gives me the best access to the brakes. Advice?

Equipment: I'm planning on maybe buying some gloves and getting some squishier bar tape. I don't want to spend money on a new seat, and the current seat is surprisingly comfortable. How can I make my bike more comfortable without spending much money? Any duh-obvious fixes that I haven't thought of?

Starting and stopping: Any tricks for smooth starting? I'm getting better, but if you have a technique that gets you moving in a straight line and quickly, I'm all ears!

In sum: How do I improve my bike handling skills and get the most out of my forty pound beast?
posted by ablazingsaddle to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (25 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
I've used hose clamps to mount a water bottle cage to an old Schwinn. If you want to protect the paint, put part of an old inner tube or something similar around the frame where you're mounting it.
posted by zsazsa at 12:09 PM on October 22, 2012


You can get clamps to mount bottle cages to bikes without braze-ons. Super easy to install, you can do this yourself at home.

Downtube friction shifters are just generally a pain. If they feel stiff, you should be able to adjust the tension so that they rotate more easily, but if you loosen them up too much you run the risk of the bike shifting on its own. You should downshift before you feel like you need to, also, since you don't really want to be shifting while putting a load on the chain.

If you're in traffic, try riding on the hoods instead of in the drops. You should still have access to the brakes and it gets your head up a little bit. You should be able to find beefier brake hoods if the ones on the bike now are small and hard.

To make the bike more comfortable, first make sure the saddle's at the right height. Raise the handlebars next, but make sure you don't overextend them (there's a line on the stem that marks the maximum extension) - that will put you more upright and should be a more comfortable ride. I'm personally not a huge fan of gloves, but if your hands are feeling raw it might help. Putting larger tires on the bike will also make for a smoother ride. If you need to carry things, consider a rack.

To get a good start on the bike:
-Downshift before you come to a stop so you are in a comfortable starting gear.
-Put one foot on the ground and leave the other on a raised pedal. Your butt should be off the saddle and straddling the top tube.
-Release the brakes and hoist yourself into the saddle by putting your weight on the pedal foot. This will get you moving, and once that foot is at the low point on the stroke you can put your other foot on its pedal and continue the pedaling motion.

To stop:
-Downshift while you're approaching your stop point and continue pedaling. It should only take a rotation or two to get the bike in the right gear.
-If you're using clips or SPDs, get your ground foot out of its encumbrance.
-Brake primarily with the front wheel (left hand).
-As the bike comes to a stop, push yourself off the saddle with your pedal foot and put your other foot on the ground.
posted by backseatpilot at 12:17 PM on October 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Down tube Friction shifters: Hate them, but LA is flat enough that I usually just bomb away in one gear. But trying to shift going uphill is so, so hard. Like, I lost concentration and almost fell off the bike trying to find the right gear. Is there something wrong with my shifters, or is this just the nature of the beast? I ended up walking my bike uphill (shame alert!) because I couldn't deal with shifting in traffic. I assume the solution is just to build up mad leg muscles and not have to shift, but until then . . . any suggestions? I find that standing up on the pedals on a longer climb uphill just sort of ruins my rhythm, but I can't stay seated if I can't shift.


The solution is NOT to avoid shifting. Friction shifting is a minor skill, that is not hard to learn, and is something you can teach yourself. Go find a nice flat wide open parking lot, cycle around slowly and practice shifting a gear at a time. You should easily be able to feel when you have hit the next gear up or down. You should get a feel of how far you need to move the lever to hit the next gear. You can become accomplished at this in 20 minutes. After you can consistently hit one gear, you can practice dropping several gears at a time. There's a very short learning curve.

Of course it's possible there is something wrong with your shifting, but if the bike is staying in gear in general, then that is less likely. You probably just need to practice.
posted by OmieWise at 12:19 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Water bottle holders can be mounted with hose clamps where they would normally be mounted on a bike. Not the prettiest solution, but it works fine. Stainless hose clamps are a good idea and you can put a thin layer of something plastic or rubber underneath if you are concerned about the paint on your bike.

While more modern drivetrains do shift easier, shifting before you need it is the best way to go. When you are putting a lot of force on the chain (pedaling slow and hard up a hill) it is very hard for the gears to shift (and if your balance is off, it is harder to reach the shifters). Shift before you get to the bottom of the hill, shift before you get to the stop (so you are ready in a easier gear to start again), and so on.

Drops. If you aren't comfortable riding on the drops or on the hoods, then your bike probably doesn't fit right. Try your handlebars higher (you can adjust this by moving the stem up) or a shorter distance between your seat and bars (ideally by replacing the stem, but try moving the seat forward, as this doesn't cost anything). However, I generally prefer riding on the hoods in traffic - you don't need to be at your most efficient all the time.

The big issues for comfort are bike fit, bike fit, and bike fit, followed by bike shorts (good ones, with comfortable padding), seat, gloves (big padded gloves are for mountain biking, you want thin ones to allow you to use all hand positions comfortably), shoes, etc. If you can make the fit better, do that. Money spent on good shorts is well spent (and won't be wasted when you upgrade). Otherwise, I'd think a better bike is the highest priority. I wouldn't spend any more money on this bike if it will be replaced in a few months, unless you plan to keep it afterwards.

Smooth starting will likely be much helped by shifting to an easier gear before you stop.
posted by ssg at 12:20 PM on October 22, 2012


Are there ways to mount water bottle cages to super old school road bikes? I've been thinking about getting a camelbak for non-bike reasons for a while, but if there's a cheaper solution, I'd love to hear it.

Zipties are a) cheap, b) easy to get rid of, and c) not gonna mess up your paint all that bad.

If you don't want to spring for a camelbak-branded water bag thingy, Platypus stuff is cheap, and I kind of like it better anyway.

Riding in the drops: Love it on a bike path, hate it in traffic. I just feel like I can't really see what's going on around me, but it's definitely the most efficient way to ride, and it gives me the best access to the brakes. Advice?

If you can't reach your brakes from a more upright position with your hands on top of the bars, you might want to see if you can move 'em around a bit. I've also heard it argued that you can't breathe as well all hunkered down in the drops like that. At any rate, while it's nice to have the option while trying to make serious speed or whatever, I don't use mine all that much.

Equipment: I'm planning on maybe buying some gloves and getting some squishier bar tape. I don't want to spend money on a new seat, and the current seat is surprisingly comfortable. How can I make my bike more comfortable without spending much money? Any duh-obvious fixes that I haven't thought of?

Do you have any kind of foot retention going on? If not, and if it's something you're nervous about trying, Power Grips were great when I was sort of transitioning into the idea that yes, I want my feet solidly connected to the pedals.
posted by brennen at 12:21 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have a similar bike that I just bought off craigslist for forty bucks and made some relatively minor repairs to. I just rode it about 75 miles and feel good about it. (I also have a fancy Surly Long Haul Trucker from 2010. It's a beautiful bike, and rides much more smoothly than my Krystal Mark IV--have you ever even heard of this?!--from craigslist, but don't get the idea you need a better bike to be a better cyclist. Of course a bike that works better is easier to ride, but it might be worth it to "just" overhaul the drivetrain and make some other, more minor repairs.

Here's one duh obvious fix: if you're having trouble changing gears you may need to replace the deraileur cables. It's a surprisingly easy job (a good mechanic could probably do it in fifteen minutes; I did it a couple days ago and it took me 1.5 hours which included lots of instructional videos on youtube plus lots of unrelated screwing around on the internet). Downtube shifters are an enormous pain in the ass, but if you're going to all the trouble to replace the cables (& housing while you're at it, how about!) & handlebar tape, you might as well put some shifter cables somewhere easier to get to. Bar-end shifters are really nice to have, for what it's worth, though may be pricier than just re-mounting the shifters at the base of the stem using the hardware you already have.

Gloves are very nice. I wear 'em all the time, but they're a true godsend if you're riding more than 10 miles at a time (after 30-40 straight, my hands start to feel numb even with gloves, and this is worse on uneven terrain).
posted by tapir-whorf at 12:22 PM on October 22, 2012


For starting smoothly, I suspect that getting the hang of your shifters and starting from stops in a nice, low gear and THEN gearing up will help you immensely on the getting started more smoothly, since you won't have to rely so much on hard pushes with your legs and, consequently, shifts in your centre of gravity WRT your bike.

On my daily commute I notice that lots of (seriously, most) people don't gear down when they're coming to a full stop, which is something you generally should do. Although it's something that takes practice, the rate your pedals are spinning should generally always be the same and there should not really be times when you're having to push the pedals really hard... which is what OmieWise is getting at, above, with getting to know your shifters. Do some reading about cadence.
posted by urbanlenny at 12:22 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'll just chime in that although I always wear I helmet I have never *needed* one. (As in, never hit my head due to an accident.) I also always wear gloves for safety as well as comfort. I have several pebbles from a New Mexican road embedded in the palm of my right hand that would not be there if I had been wearing gloves.

I'll add my endorsement for a Camelbak or similar drinking setup. It will be useful on your next bike as well and makes drinking much easier. I keep a patch kit, mini pump, tube, and Quick Stick tire lever in mine so I always have the stuff I need to change a flat and do not need to worry about them being stolen off the bike while locked up.

As said above, friction shifting just takes a small amount of work to learn and then you've got it. Hey - it was good enough for Eddy Merckyx!
posted by Brooklyn_Jake at 12:30 PM on October 22, 2012


Like you, I started biking on a succession of rusty jalopy-bikes, and it was often easier to stick with one gear than struggle with changing 'em. Learning how to shift gears properly on long rides was something I discovered many years after I started biking around town as a college student, and it's really changed the way I ride. With new, lubed cables & deraileur adjustment, the shifters being somewhere easier to reach (shifters on the downtube really throw off my balance!), and more familiarity with using 'em, your troubles with starting and stopping will be a thing of the past because shifting won't be so difficult.

(Also, like urbanlenny says, it's good to gear down when you're coming to a full stop.)
posted by tapir-whorf at 12:32 PM on October 22, 2012


I do usually ride on the hoods in traffic. Riding in the drops is so much more fun, though. I also have a silly extra front wheel brake that I can reach while in the most upright position, but I don't use it unless I'm in total stop-and-go-traffic-chaos.

On my daily commute I notice that lots of (seriously, most) people don't gear down when they're coming to a full stop, which is something you generally should do.

Mind blown.

You guys are so much more helpful than reading through pages of snarky bike forums.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 12:37 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh--I'd like to chime in again about learning how to work on your own bike! So many basic repairs are relatively quite simple and (if you have more time than money, at least--and it sounds like you do) worth learning how to do on your own. For instance, a shop will charge you ~$20 for a deraileur adjustment, something it takes a good mechanic a couple minutes to do. You may not be good mechanic (yet), so it might take you an hour of consulting a book or the internet, but you'll understand the principle of deraileurs and be able to make adjustments whenever it seems like you need 'em from then on. The easiest way to get started if you don't have the tools or feel intimidated is at a bike collective/co-op like the Bike Kitchen in LA. (Here's an incomplete list of other bike co-ops in the US.)

Re the Camelbak, I'm always hesitant to recommend expensive things to beginners. It can be super-handy, yes, but if you buy it new it costs ~8x what a plastic water bottle and cheap cage cost, and in the end it may not be any more awesome than the far cheaper options. It's hard to tell whether you'll use something regularly, especially with things you've never gotten the chance to use/try out. If you're set on something like this, I'd encourage you to check out craigslist, used gear sales, the garage sales at REI on weekends, etc.
posted by tapir-whorf at 12:40 PM on October 22, 2012


A bike coop is a good place to learn how to wrench on old beater bikes, and usually has a better selection of old parts than a bike shop. The used parts are usually dirt cheap, too. There are apparently a ton in Los Angeles.

Downtube friction shifting is a skill that takes time to develop, much like dialing a rotary telephone quickly. Whether you want to spend time learning it is your choice. I like and ride vintage bikes, but downtube shifting is simply a pain, especially in mixed traffic conditions, because you have to shift your body weight quite a bit, and move your hands a good distance away from the brakes.

If you want to change things up, even on a bike with a friction-shifting drivetrain, bar-end or stem mount shifters are much easier to use. You can probably find some used ones at a bike coop. Also, newer freewheels/cassettes (rear gear clusters) have beveled teeth that make the chain jump between gears much more easily than the unbeveled teeth on 80s-era freewheels, and are pretty cheap. Replacing the shifter housing/cable can make a big difference, too, and should cost $10 or less in parts.

Riding in the drops likewise isn't the best option in mixed traffic conditions, unless you have a tall stem to keep your upright. Old road bike hoods aren't that comfortable, and the brake levers don't work that well from the hoods. A set of modern aero brake levers will give you bigger hoods to rest your hands on, and better leverage from the hoods to boot. If you're swapping those in, look to swap your brake cables & brake pads out at the same time. That'd probably be under $50.
posted by akgerber at 12:44 PM on October 22, 2012


Ooh, I forgot: French bikes, especially older French bikes (pre-1980s), often use different parts interfaces & specifications than most modern bikes, which are generally built to English/Japanese parts specifications. Be careful about buying parts, because many won't fit. Here's a list of many of the parts that differ.
posted by akgerber at 12:50 PM on October 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


I've ridden a lot lot lot on old frames with down tube shifters. Yes, it's all about the practice. For me, I find it a bit easier to shift the left shifter by reaching through the frame with my right hand; ymmv, of course. If the cables are goopy/not moving properly, you can replace them as someone up thread mentioned, but you can also try dribbling some Tri-Flow into the housing cable; typically it's enough to loosen things up quite a bit.

I personally can't stand riding longish distances with stuff on my back. Drives me nutty. So finding ways to attach extra things to the bike is a must for me. There are cheap-ass quick-release rear racks that you can get for about $40; throw a milk crate on top, and make sure you don't put more than 20lbs in, and you're golden for carrying all kinds of stuff...

For starting quickly, (you've probably already figured this out) it helps to rotate the pedals so that you're at the top of the 'power-stroke' when you start. This gives you more kick coming out of the stop light...
posted by kaibutsu at 12:55 PM on October 22, 2012


I never ride on the drops in traffic. If you are riding on the drops, then I suspect your stem is too high.

Shifting friction levers, as stated above, is a little bit of an art. With Campy parts (if you have them), you typically need to overshift a tiny bit and then shift back. In any case, you need to back off the pedals a little to ensure a smooth shift, which is another reason to shift slightly before you need to.

Also as stated above, downshift a couple gears as you approach a stop. At the stop, rotate your pedals so your good foot is at about 1:00.

Practice holding a line by riding on a painted line on the road. Eventually it will become second nature.
posted by adamrice at 1:01 PM on October 22, 2012


In your last question you mention being a 5'2" woman (which I am as well!), so I'm wondering what size this 40 lb road bike you ride is. Because from some of what you describe I'm sorta wondering if your bike is too big for you. In my search for road bikes I found it tough to find something that didn't have too long of a tob tube--I can only reach so far!

Also, speaking as a lady cyclist, I find bike shorts are less of a must have than my male cyclists friends do. Especially for anything under ~20 miles.

Monday night is ladies night at the Bike Kitchen!
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 2:18 PM on October 22, 2012


My bike is a 48 cm frame. I have proportionally very long legs and a shorter torso, and I know what you mean by, "But I can only reach so far!" However, I tested a smaller bike recently and it felt weird. I think it was a 46 cm frame.

If I ever got out of work in time to get to the Bike Kitchen on Monday nights, I totally would! I'm a little intimidated by that place, but I should just suck it up and stop being an awkward nerd.

Re: Bike Shorts: I rode about twenty miles yesterday, and while bike shorts would have been a little more comfortable, I'm not in agony today so I think I can hold off on that purchase for a while.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 2:29 PM on October 22, 2012


Also, is foot retention safe if you're riding in traffic? (Not clipless pedals that you can get in and out of quickly, but toe straps and the like?)
posted by ablazingsaddle at 2:32 PM on October 22, 2012


Toe clips and straps are one of those things you get used to. Everyone has an embarrassing moment where they fail to loosen a toe strip as they glide to a halt and then tip over, sooner or later, but the reflex becomes automatic. I found myself reaching down to loosen non-existent straps for at least a couple years after I switched to clipless pedals.
posted by adamrice at 2:43 PM on October 22, 2012


If you are a lady or otherwise intimidated by the dudeliness of bike coops, most have women's/trans nights.

Toe clips are fine in traffic-- you can yank your feet out easily, especially when you don't snug them down super tight. I don't. You only will be stuck to your pedals if you snug down the straps really tight & have toe clip cleats screwed to your shoes like a bike racer in 1979.
posted by akgerber at 2:50 PM on October 22, 2012


Also, is foot retention safe if you're riding in traffic?

Generally speaking, I think it's safer in almost every circumstance. It gives you greater control and efficiency in general, and helps you stay on the bike and in control of it when things get a bit dicy.

It does take a bit of getting used to, but it's well worth it.

There does seem to be something of an idea out there that clips and straps are more dangerous than clipless; I think this might be true in that they can get caught on stuff, but in practice I continue to feel pretty good about them. I think the main point is that some kind of foot retention is a Good Idea.
posted by brennen at 3:04 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have proportionally very long legs and a shorter torso

You should definitely play with raising the handlebars, then - raising them not only increases their height but will move them closer to your body since the head tube is angled backwards.
posted by backseatpilot at 5:47 PM on October 22, 2012


FYI: mounting water bottles on your handlebars is a tried and true historic method that used to be the norm for bike racers.

Presumably, mounting them on the frame is preferable because it is more aerodynamic.
posted by sarah_pdx at 6:07 PM on October 22, 2012


Get mini-clips. I use those because I don't use any sort of clipless and full cages annoy the jebus out of me for commuting. But mini-clips are great! And are like, ten bucks.

Looks like a ton of advice upthread already worked for you. Cork bar tape is awesome and squishy and makes the bike look like a million bucks!
posted by kpht at 7:30 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


These are the mini clips.
posted by kpht at 7:32 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


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