Coasting

Coasting downhill is the cycling experience that most closely mimics flying. It’s the perfect natural consequence and just reward for the hard work of getting to the top of a hill. There’s nothing quite like finally cresting a hill and feeling the pull of gravity take you down, down, down the other side, while you silently glide and swerve, dodging potholes and weaving between the dotted yellow lines like a hawk floating on an air current.

“Serious” cycling, that being cycling for sport as in road racing, mountain bike racing, time trials and the like, took away from me this most enjoyable aspect of cycling. Serious cycling would have the cyclist pedal all the time at the same cadence; uphill, downhill, into the wind, with the wind, all the while frantically shifting between 27 (or even 30 now) gear combinations, turning the rider into a humanoid Lime drive. Serious cyclists don’t coast.

There’s nothing quite like finally cresting a hill and feeling the pull of gravity take you down, down, down the other side, while you silently glide and swerve, dodging potholes and weaving between the dotted yellow lines like a hawk floating on an air current.

Of course, if a person is racing, there’s good reason to pedal all the time; the object, after all, is to get to the finish line first, and coasting doesn’t contribute to forward momentum. Where it all breaks down though, is when edicts from the Racing Gods trickle down and infect the thinking of average, non-racing schmucks like me. The latest How to Win the TDF manual may suggest that it’s most efficient to keep your cadence high, constant, and within a narrow range, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an appropriate technique for a leisurely ride to the coffee shop. [Note to self: Efficiency has its time-and-place and we do well to recognize when-and-where it is-or-isn’t required.]

It took a decidedly inefficient bike, and the desire to avoid soaking my street clothes, to reintroduce me to the joys of coasting. A 50-pound bike with a 5-speed transmission is not conducive to maintaining a “high and steady” cadence. As a matter of fact, a 50-pound bike with a 5-speed transmission pretty much discourages anything remotely resembling such behavior. A 50-pound bike wants to go at its own pace, not unlike a stubborn mule that knows the route and will take you to your destination at her pace, thank you very much. What you learn, when riding a mule masquerading as a bike, is that working with the bike, not against it, is the only reasonable approach. And you also learn that a mule-bike requires extra effort from the rider to get to the top of the hill, but it doubly rewards the rider by going down the other side like an anvil dropped from a third story window.

Most people don’t consider excess weight to be a desirable quality in a bike. As a matter of fact, many people spend silly amounts of money to shave even sillier amounts of weight from their already silly-light bicycles. Uber-light bikes go uphill like crazy, but they’re no good at all for encouraging a coasting state of mind. They’re the most serious of serious bikes that demand to be pedaled continuously. And while they may be “light as a feather”, without a willing engine they go downhill about as fast as a feather on an updraft. A 50-pound anvil-bike smokes an 18-pound feather-bike in a downhill coast-off.

But I digress. Of course, as a famous cyclist once said, “It’s not about the bike.” Whatever your ride, coasting is actually a state of mind, a desire to experience again the free rides and the long glides of youth, a chance to let go of the trappings of serious cycling and once again fly like an eagle.

10 Responses to “Coasting”

  • Rick says:

    I really like this article.

    It reminds me of my first attempt at touring, which was in Missouri. As I moved from east to west it just kept getting more and more hilly. I was expressing my worries to an older local rider that I met near my campsite. He told me when approaching a hill, to get into the gear that I thought I would be in at the top of the hill, and not to be intimidated. (As opposed to how I had been doing it: trying to use the momentum from peddling down the previous hill, and when that gave out, going as far as I could and as hard as I could until I had to stop!)

    So, now I do what he said on the uphills, which has helped my cycling quite a bit. But he also told me that on the downhill side,I should keep my feet moving to keep the blood flowing, but put very little effort into the stroke to maximize rest. So, I do that now, too.

    I have been trying to ease up a bit on the speed to try to remember what it is like to have fun, and not end up looking like a huffy, puffy, sweaty streak rolling by. It is difficult because when you are an enthusiast, you tend to try to be on the cutting edge, and aquire the latest, greatest thing (in your price range) and then when you get it, the attitude is to look at other bikes in comparison to your bike. So, if you are to be justified in spending all that time, effort, and money on your bike, you have to prove how much faster your bike is than the other one.

    Alan, I think you are providing a huge service to the bicycle enthusiasts you reach by reminding them that the joy of riding a bicycle isn’t the bicycle, it is the ride.

  • Geoff Steele says:

    Using a recumbent, especially a long wheelbase, underseat steering model, can encourage the kind of riding style Rick mentions above — all the time. It’s just a relaxing way to move through life…

  • Jim Reilly says:

    Faster. Faster. Faster. I find it easy to get sucked into that while riding my highracer recumbent. Then speed is the ONLY thing that matters…. There is no scenery. There are no sites. There are no sounds. There is no fun.

  • torrilin says:

    I find it is useful to work on spinning, even on my sedate and upright Breezer. I have cranky knees, ankles and a bad hip, and working on a smooth constant motion means my joints spend less time being painful. And working on a faster smooth motion means I can go faster when I want to. Spinning is a lot more comfortable for my body, so it’s worth the trouble.

    I’m also not silly enough to pedal downhill if coasting is the sensible way down. Local roads often have bad designs, with stop signs at the bottom of hills, so coasting and even braking downhill is a given. I go to my favorite grocery store partially because the way home is almost all downhill. That means even when I’m tired and have a heavy load, the trip is not bad (despite one really *badly* placed stop sign).

  • Alan says:

    @Rick

    So, if you are to be justified in spending all that time, effort, and money on your bike, you have to prove how much faster your bike is than the other one.

    Maybe the answer is to do what I do – ride bikes that are slow; that way there’s hope of proving anything to anyone… ;-)

    Regards,
    Alan

  • Ray Jenkins says:

    Yes my heaver recumbant, with it’s rear shock, wider rims and small fairing, does fly past the feather light roadies on the downhills . . . and is a bit more work on the up hills!
    Two years ago I was part of a group ride ( @ 220 people and their bikes ) that started in San Franscisco and 8 days and 500 miles later ended near L.A. There were only 4 recumbants and 3 trikes in the group. I realized that my fairing would help by cutting through headwinds or with tailwinds help by pushing me along. My wide rims and tires helped to go the distance without a single flat. I would regularly pass up the narrow rimed / tire road bikes / riders on the side of the of the road fixing flats. The comfortable eargonomics of a recumbant riding position plus the smothed out benifit of the shock, I feal, made the whole experiance very enjoyable . . . except for the long / steep up-hills. Ray Sacramento, Cal.

  • Tim Guthrie says:

    Alan,

    Thanks for the new great site. I must agree that on my 41 mile round trip commute, I usually coast downhill north of 20mph, and start working hard again when the uphill starts to get serious. I have found that even coasting for 5 or 10 seconds can provide a small bit of rest that means alot. Cycling without coasting is TOO much like running.

    Overall on the speed/work hard thing, when I feel good i like to go as fast as I can, when tired, I have been learning how to take it a little easier and not ‘punish’ myself for taking it easier. I have also found that going hard or slow only means about 10 minutes in the time for my commute. I think for former racers (early 1990′s) going slower, and coasting are hard to learn. Being over 40 and having to ‘get back into shape’ is helping me learn this import lesson.

    For the record, my ride is: a 2007 Rans Stratus XP with a zipper fairing and most availalbe terracycle options.

  • Duane says:

    love this piece because it (coasting) is the one moment in a ride that i feel equal to the speed-ability of my riding companions, if there are any. i ride a windcheetah clubsport primarily due to my disability (too complicated to explain why here) and keeping pace with others is impossible and requires that they be very patient. recumbents are not great at hill climbing anyway and my disability only compounds the effort but once i find a hill i can climb i sometimes make that my sole reason for a ride. flying down a steep hill with my butt a mere 11 inches from the pavement and my eyes near tears from the wind makes the effort of the climb worth it.

  • Alexander López says:

    Hi Duane! I want to get me a tadpole trike sometime soon, and the elegant simplicity of the windcheetah simply seduces me along with its low weight. My question for you (and other trikers) is How important is lightness on a trike?

    I cycle on a Chinese IMREMO steel frame mountain bike, and with all the stuff I use it’s a 15 kg (33 pounds) ride. (Lighter bikes are appealing but I can’t justify paying 5X the price for just half the weight). For me it’s difficult to decide between spending lots of cash for an all carbon Windcheetah or a heavier trike with lots of cruising equipment and rear suspension.

    And about coasting: this week I spotted a fellow biker going downhill to his work. He was using his helmet and gloves. Wise choice, because he was COASTING at 80 kph (50 mph). That gives you an idea of how steep are the hills around here!

  • Duane says:

    hi Alexander!
    i’m not an expert with weight re trikes or any other bike for that matter. i’ve read, perhaps on alan’s old blog, i can’t remember, that minute differences in weight make little difference unless you are a racer and a serious one at that. bob at windcheetah wouldn’t like to hear me say this but buying the hypersport is overkill if weight is your primary concern. they offer lighter weight bolts and other fittings than the stock that came on my trike but again, overkill for my purposes. i bought the clubsport in large part because of my disability. i have the use of only one arm and the joystick is ideal for me. that said the design captivated me and i do not have an obsessive personality at all. i sent countless e-mails to bob. the cost (in excess of $4,000, fitted, in ’03) was inconsequential to me. i love to ride bikes. my main concern was dismounting from 11 inches from the ground and this factor is a constant whenever i plan a ride or choose a place to live. i am qualified to distinguish between extreme weight differences. my first trike weighed about 50 pounds. it was built by co-motion cycles in eugene, oregon. they don’t build them anymore. if you want to see a pic of my first trike, copy/paste my flickr site here:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/goldonsilver/228754384/in/set-72157594512859033/

    the first few times you ride a windcheetah, the handling is a bit unnerving because the joystick is very sensitive and the uneasiness is compounded by the close proximity to the pavement. being seen is not as much of an issue as you’d think. try not being seen is the bigger challenge. i assure you that the uneasiness quickly evaporates because it is such a blast to ride. for me of course it offers freedom and the plus that i’m not polluting the air.

    if you can find an owner near where you live, you might contact them for a test ride. windcheetah used to have a list of owners who would offer this service. i don’t know if they do that anymore.

    oh, and during my incessant research, bob, at one time weakly recommended the greenspeed because it sits higher off the ground and is heavier too i believe. but it requires two hands to control it…. i think. best of luck to you.

 
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