Sunday, March 15, 2009
Advice to a Friend on Choosing a Trainer – The Ins and Outs of Indoor Training
Note: I rate this post PG-13 for mild strong language, mild violence, mild drug references, and a mild oblique gang reference. Please use your discretion.
Who are You?
Look, if you’re not interested in bike trainers, just stop right now. I suppose if you’re not really that interested in bike trainers, but have boundless faith that I will make good on my steadfast goal of making you laugh, you could skim this until the “human interest” parts, which will include Technicolor loogies, shameless (and shameful) name-dropping, loud cursing, violent attacks on inanimate objects, and unfair treatment of an animal. But really, if you haven’t ridden a bike indoors and see no reason to start, this post in all likelihood just isn’t for you. Go find something better to do.
Who Am I?
Before I advise you on what trainer to purchase, I should let you know I’m not a world authority on trainers. I’ve only owned four. I’m sure there are bike geeks who have owned many more than that and could go on and on about the features of each. What I’m really out to do with this article is to help you with the other advice you haven’t even asked for: how to decide if you’ll really use a trainer, and how to make the most of it if you do. In fact, since you should really decide first if you really want a trainer before choosing a type, I’ve decided to move the trainer information to Appendix A. And since I can’t have an Appendix A without an Appendix B, I’ve included that as well. I’m not an HTML expert, so you’ll have to scroll down for these appendices instead of clicking here. (See? Does nothing. Sorry. I hope you’re not in a rush.)
Before I get started, here’s a video showing how a stationary trainer can be fun for the whole family. (Not shown: my wife, who is having fun shooting the movie.)
I got a fortune-cookie fortune once that said, “Hell is paved with good intentions.” Not just the road to Hell, as the old saying goes, but Hell itself. Perhaps it’s true. I picture Hell littered with stationary bikes, Nordic Tracks, dumbbells, Soloflex machines, and exercise balls (not to mention food processors and Crock-Pots). See, before you actually get any use out of a trainer, you have to overcome three serious obstacles: Lack of Gumption; Tolerance of Drudgery; and, the Ravages of Moisture. If you learn how to deal with these, you’ll get plenty of use out of your trainer and be glad you bought it. If, on the other hand, you let one or two of these get the better of you, you’ll wish I’d steered you away from an indoor trainer altogether.
Obstacle One – Lack of Gumption
Few people, I would imagine, have much trouble getting motivated for their first indoor trainer ride. After all, your trainer is an expensive new toy, and you bought the thing for a reason (or for many reasons; snow, rain, gloom of night, and “stealth training” come to mind). But after the harsh reality of that first workout, it’s hard to seriously contemplate ever riding the thing again. After all, riding an indoor trainer is boring, painful, boring, and painful. “Boy, that was a good workout,” you may tell yourself, “and I’m going to ride indoors whenever it’s too [dark, rainy, etc.] to ride.” Many an unrealized good intention was proclaimed with such empty words.
I think there are two basic forms this gumption obstacle can take: one, the general matter of whether you really believe a seasonal indoor training regimen is worth adopting; and two, the specific, immediate matter of how to motivate to ride that thing when you’re tired, or it’s early and cold, or you’re simply dreading what you’re about to do.
For the more general type of gumption challenge, about all I can say to motivate you is that the trainer really works. You can get a really sweet workout in a relatively short amount of time, and your form in the spring won’t be so affected by how wet and cold the winter was. Case in point: when I became a dad in September 2001, I lost out on almost all opportunity to sleep, much less ride my bike. I struggled badly with the transition from normal person to parent. I had very little time to ride, and even less energy. Despite all this, I was determined to ride the Death Ride that July (125 miles, 16,000 feet of climbing, at altitude). Before the big day, I’d managed only twenty-three road rides (fewer than one a week!), totaling a mere 509 miles (vs. my 2,000+ miles of usual pre-Death-Ride training). My longest ride to that point was a whopping 36 miles. But, I’d ridden the trainer 31 times, to which I largely credit my basically appropriate physique and modicum of fitness. This was evidently enough: I did manage to finish that Death Ride. And even more remarkably, my brother Geoff—who lives in rainy Holland—once completed the Death Ride without doing a single actual road ride in preparation. It was all on the trainer.
Attaining the more specific, day-to-day gumption is the harder thing, I think, to overcome. The intellectual mind is adept at contriving lofty resolutions, but when it comes to remembering pain and suffering and tedium, the less dissembling lizard brain is more realistic, and exerts an awful lot of influence over the organism as a whole. Let’s look at the two main ways in which a trainer ride is thwarted: procrastination and bedwetting.
Procrastination: You figure you’ll ride the trainer when you get home from work. You end up working late, either because there’s actually work to be done, or because deep-seated fear of pain and suffering tricks you into pretending there’s work to be done. Or, you get home from work and realize you’re too tired to ride, so you decide, “I’ll do it tomorrow instead, without fail!” (This little subroutine, of course, gets you nowhere.) Or, your buddies talk you into getting a drink after work, and you realize you can’t ride the trainer with any alcohol in your system. Or, you get home and your spouse/other has made a nice dinner or wants to go out. Or, or, or…. Almost anything can short-circuit the mythical evening trainer ride. (The exception that proves the rule is my brother Geoff, whose routine is to ride at like 11:00 at night, which works if you have the strangest lifestyle on Earth and/or don’t mind being terribly, terribly sleep-deprived.)
On the weekend, of course, you can ride at any time of the day, so you bounce from one distraction (kids, hobbies) to another (chores, errands), all the while holding your good intention in the forefront of your mind, until suddenly it’s somehow bedtime and in addition to not having ridden you experience, or at least ought to experience, a bout of self-loathing.
Bedwetting. You realize, through trial and error (see above) or from reading this blog, that the only time of day that will really work for your trainer ride is the early morning, before anybody is awake to waylay you and nothing else is going on that could distract you. So your alarm goes off at 5:30 or 6:00, and you immediately silence it, and then send a foot out from beneath the blankets on a reconnaissance mission, and discover (as on a deep-seated level you’d actually hoped) that it’s cold out there, too cold to even think about getting out of bed, and you let yourself fall back asleep. Or, you actually make it out of bed, pee, realize it’s cold out there, contemplate all the steps that go into setting up the trainer (or “torture rack,” as my brothers and I like to call it), and suffer a crushing failure of will, climbing back into bed hoping sleep will return quickly to release you from a totally appropriate bout of self-loathing. I call this scenario “bedwetting” because if you fall prey to it, you deserve to be called a bedwetter. Consider this getting off easy … there are of course far worse things you could be called (see Appendix B).
I have offered above the only solution I know to the procrastination problem (i.e., ride before dawn, no matter how free your day appears to be). I can suggest three solutions to the bedwetting problem: mise-en-place, caffeine, and the buddy system. My experience has shown that you really need to put in place at least two of these solutions, for every ride, or you’ll manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Mise en place. I’ve borrowed this phrase from the French-originated term for a correctly configured cook’s station in a busy restaurant kitchen. What I am suggesting here is to get the whole trainer setup assembled the night before your ride: the tarp, the trainer, the bike, the codpiece (see below), the headband, the bandana, the shorts, jersey, socks, & shoes, the energy drink, the fan, the tunes, and the heart rate monitor & strap. This achieves two things: it keeps you from stumbling around in the dark the next morning while your spouse/other slumbers, which often ends in “screw this!” and bedwetting; and, it forces you out of bed because you’ll feel like a complete idiot if you end up dismantling the whole mise en place the next morning without having ridden.
Caffeine. How long does it take to ingest caffeine? Note that I didn’t say “coffee.” It could take a long time to brew coffee, and the whole ordeal—hunting around in your kitchen for the beans, the grinder, the filters, the little adapter doohickey for the Mr. Coffee, a clean mug, cream, sugar, etc., all before dawn–could easily lead to “screw this!” and bedwetting. I firmly believe you need to have either a large mug or thermos of coffee setting right there on your bedside table, or even better, a No-Doz. Now, don’t go telling me No-Doz is like a drug, or is somehow unsafe, or whatever. It’s the equivalent of a vente-grande-whatever cup of Starbucks, without the one-block walk, the $4, and the liquid. So here’s what you do. When the alarm goes off, you silence it, sit up, swallow the No-Doz, chase it down with some water, and now—bam!—you’re committed. You can’t fall back asleep now, and your mise en place is, well, en place, so get over to that trainer and start pedaling! (Caffeine works particularly well if you’re following my special un-doping protocol, documented here: http://www.dailypeloton.com/displayarticle.asp?pk=6072.)
The Buddy System. The simplest form of the buddy system is following up with your biking pals about whether or not they rode, and hassling them if they didn’t (the term “bedwetter” is useful here), and letting them return the favor. But that’s not terribly effective by itself, because bedwetters also tend to be enablers; after all, how hard can you be on your pal when you yourself also failed to self-motivate? So the better system is to phone your buddy first thing in the morning, as soon as you’ve consumed your caffeine, to make sure he’s up and ready. I do this two or three times a week with my brother Bryan. Here’s a typical exchange:
Bryan (after a long pause): “Hello?”
Dana: “Bryan? Is that you?”
Bryan (after another long pause): “Hello Dana.”
Dana: “You up?”
Bryan (nothing, just a very long pause; he may have fallen back asleep)
Bryan (after another pause): “Yeah.”
Dana: “Are you caffeinated?”
Bryan: “I’m getting there.”
Dana: “So … are you going to do this thing?”
Bryan: “Yeah … I reckon.”
Dana: “Okay. Let’s get ‘er done.”
Bryan: “Okay then. See you later.”
This works at least half the time. Occasionally your indoor training buddy will fall back asleep, and sometimes he will get embroiled in some other activity. So a final technique is to go get on the computer and follow up your call with an instant message: “Why aren’t you on your bike?”
Obstacle Two – Tolerance of Drudgery
Okay, so you’ve bought into the indoor training concept, you have amassed the faith that this is worth doing, and you’ve carved out a swath through the logistical morass that thwarts so many good intentions. That’s great, but it is really only a start. If you don’t get results from your indoor riding regimen, and/or you find the activity far too dull and painful to return to, ride after ride, then your program is bound to be short-lived. The ways I’ve found to deal with this are intensity and entertainment.
You cannot log long, slow distance on a trainer. It’s physically impossible, and not just because “distance” implies movement and this is a stationary trainer we’re talking about. My point is, base miles can only be gotten on the road, with pals. Your trainer workout cannot be the cycling equivalent of “My Dinner with Andre.” It has to be the cycling equivalent of Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch.” That is to say, boredom can be thwarted if you turn the ride itself into an act of violence. The sustained nature of your output on a trainer makes it ideal for generating adrenaline and endorphins, if you can just go hard enough. Meanwhile, a really intense workout is bound to do the most good, thus reinforcing the value of the whole enterprise. Beyond caffeine (which has proven benefit during exercise), the key to intensity is measuring your output. And for this you need a heart rate monitor.
You don’t just use the heart rate monitor they way your utilities company uses a gas or electric meter. Your heart rate during the exercise is not a matter of trivia to be looked at after the fact. Think of it more like an applause meter. If your heart rate is below the target zone (this zone being 70-85% of your maximum heart rate), that’s like being booed. If it’s merely within the target zone, that’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, but not much; in applause terms this is either nothing or polite clapping such as an bored retiree might do at an amateur theatre production. When you’re above the zone, on the other hand, this imaginary audience is cheering you on. If you can set up an internal feedback loop where you loathe yourself the whole time you’re not above the target zone, you’re on the right track. After five or ten minutes of hammering, the pain should start to recede and you can “float” your heart rate at a pretty high number. You’re still aware of the intensity, however—just like when a dentist is pulling a tooth and there’s this incredible pressure, even if the Novocain masks the pain itself. Thus you’re spared the soul-crushing, seemingly pointless loping along that a low-intensity trainer ride would produce.
Keep in mind, though, that this level of intensity can turn you into a bit of a maniac during the workout. When my kids come down to watch (or more likely to ask for something), I refuse to engage with them, because this causes my heart rate to plummet and my rhythm to get all fouled up. I have been known to yell out, “Go tell your mother to make you breakfast!” or “Go turn on the heater!” (knowing this will get the kids out of my hair as they huddle over the vents for warmth). Once, I saw our cat head into her litter box, and—fearing the kind of hugely stinky defecation that normally clears the room and could be dangerous to someone breathing as hard as I was—I yelled, “Misha, NO!” The poor beast looked at me with total bewilderment. Wasn’t this exactly where she was supposed to do this? The good news is, after the workout you should be much more mellow that during it, and probably more mellow than before it. It’s like when you douse your raw eggplant slices with salt to disgorge all their bitterness.
People doing the exercise bike or treadmill at the gym will often read magazines. This is okay if your main goal is to catch up on Us or People Weekly. But if you’re after a real workout, you cannot read while you do it. “But I work up a sweat while reading!” you protest. Sure, but in most of the U.S., like here in the Bay Area, you can work up a sweat making the bed. (If you’re in arid Boulder, working up a noticeable sweat is much more difficult, but then, the average fitness level in Boulder is so high a mere sweat still doesn’t mean anything. )
Which brings us to TV or videos. These don’t work very well for me. My brother Geoff has gotten good results watching boxing or a Steven Seagal movie. (The highly unusually agitated and oxygen-deprived mental state induced by a good trainer workout can make otherwise unwatchable programs enjoyable as simple spectacles.) My friend Pete has reported some great hammering results while watching the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. But for me, visual entertainment is too distracting to really keep my nose on the grindstone. For that, I need music.
The ideal trainer music is rap. This is because it has an unfailing beat. This isn’t to say you can’t find rock music that’s just as reliable; I also get good results listening to Red Hot Chili Peppers, White Stripes (at least the first few albums), Soundgarden, and some of the more rousing Radiohead. The point is, lots of mellower music, like Elton John or Cowboy Junkies or Simon & Garfunkel, just isn’t going to cut it.
What you want is a driving beat to sync your pedal cadence up with. Once synced up, you choose a gear that gives you enough resistance to get that heart rate up. This will be difficult, but staying in sync with the music will make sure you don’t slow down and/or forget to hammer. And you can lie to yourself that you only have to hold this cadence, in this gear, at this heart rate, until the end of the song. I figured this out after getting some time trialing advice from none other than Levi Leipheimer. (Of course, for Levi to advise me on time trialing is a little like Catherine Zeta Jones giving beauty tips to a burn victim.) Levi said that to help maintain his time trial pace, he finds a landmark (a tree, telephone pole, whatever) up in the distance and tells himself he only has to maintain this pace until he gets there. Once there, he reneges on this promise and chooses another milestone. In like fashion, at the end of a song I reward myself with a mouthful of energy drink and make a new suffering commitment for the next song.
Obviously, I could have given this advice without resorting to shameless name-dropping. I provide this tidbit, and the photo below, for three reasons: 1) I can’t help it, 2) I want to promote the NorCal Mountain Biking League and their annual fundraising dinner that can give you, yes you, the same opportunity to hobnob with a top American professional racer while supporting our next generation of cyclists, and 3) hey, me and Levi! Look!
Another benefit of rap music for indoor training is that the lyrics are interesting, and there are gobs of them, so you won’t get bored with this music too easily. Plus, the anger and violence so often described in rap music are inspirational (in your altered mental state). Beyond that, it’s hard to feel sorry for yourself about the drudgery and pain of your workout when you’re hearing about poor kids from broken homes, forced to deal crack and having friends killed in drive-by shootings. If you can afford a bike and a trainer, chances are you’ve got it pretty good and have nothing really to complain about. I sometimes imagine Eminem saying to me, “Whatsa matter, dog, does riding that thing make your vagina hurt?”
If you’re doing your workout before your household is awake, you’ll probably need headphones. I recommend noise-canceling ones, because if you turn normal headphones up loud enough to drown out the trainer noise, you could eventually damage your hearing and be one of those unfortunate old people whose only utterance is “Huh? What?” or whose wives are always nagging them to turn their hearing aids down because the high-pitched whine is bothering those of us who can still hear perfectly.
The importance of music cannot be underestimated. Without it, I doubt I could last ten minutes on the trainer. Whenever I’ve had problems with my music player, I’ve always had to halt the workout until I’ve resolved them. So be sure your batteries have a good charge before you get going, and if you have a backup MP3 player, keep it handy. I have more to say about music and training, but to keep us on track I’ve put that in Appendix B below.
Obstacle Three: The Ravages of Moisture
I mentioned above that a little sweat does not necessarily indicate a good workout. If you’re really going hard, you should be producing rivers and lakes of sweat. You’ll even fog up the windows in the room (and elsewhere in the house, if it’s a cold enough morning). In fact, sweat can be a very serious problem if ride your trainer a lot. Before I figured out how to deal with this singularly corrosive form of moisture, it caused all kinds of problems. The quick-release skewer on my front hub rusted almost solid. My front derailleur adjustment screws literally did rust solid, making the derailleur useless when I tried to use it on another bike. My stem fused to the fork and almost became impossible to adjust. Worst of all, my steel fork rusted badly—and invisibly—where the steerer tube meets the crown, resulting in catastrophic failure and a bad crash on the Golden Gate Bridge.
Then there’s the mess and the stench, unpopular with roommates or spouses/others. You could ruin the carpet or rug. And my brother had a serious problem with his perforated-leather saddle absorbing sweat and getting all squishy. The leather eventually came unglued and separated from the shell like a banana peel, and he had to pitch the saddle altogether.
Here’s how to deal with all the moisture. First of all, put down a tarp. This not only catches the sweat, but keeps your trainer’s feet from damaging the carpet. Plus, the tarp gives you a place to spit. Something about intense exercise makes a guy have to spit a lot. This can get pretty gross, especially if you’re going through a lot of energy drink, which brightly colors your loogies. Just spit them all up onto the tarp, and wipe it down thoroughly with a dirty towel after your ride. (I’ve experimented with a big bowl to use as a spittoon, but it didn’t work very well—I kept missing it.)
Next, you’ve got to have a fan. This greatly increases the speed of sweat evaporation, keeping the sweat from building up, and possibly helping your body to sweat less to begin with. You’ll be more comfortable, too. Get the kind of fan that has its own stand, so that it’s roughly at handlebar height. It should be big (18” or so in diameter) and powerful. But don’t get a really nice one, because it’ll eventually rust, and you’ll probably be hawking loogies at it. This might seem crazy, but if you’re riding out of the saddle and you’ve got a good rhythm going and the music has you in a trance and you don’t want to change a thing, but then you get this big pink loogie rising up your throat, and the fan is just a foot or so away, you might just give in and launch a sputum torpedo at the rusty grille. And once you’ve done this once or twice and the fan is already gross, the impulse just snowballs and pretty soon you’re defiling the fan without thinking twice about it. I thought I was the only barbarian who spits on his fan until I compared notes with my brothers. Geoff is an inveterate fan-spitter (though Bryan still finds this appalling). If you dare, click on the photo below to zoom in.
To keep sweat out of your eyes and help keep it from flying off your head onto your bike, the walls, etc. you should wear a headband and a bandanna. I like to wear a full-zip sleeveless jersey (unzipped) to absorb sweat as well. Also, if you ride sitting up instead of bent over the bars, you’ll drip a lot less on the bike. (For some reason this also increases my heart rate.)
Oh, and don’t forget the codpiece. The what? Well, I don’t know what else to call the terrycloth thingie that stretches between your seatpost and your brake lever hoods to keep sweat from falling on the bike. In addition to the obvious proper use of the codpiece, you can have some fun deliberately using it wrong. Next time your mother, or better yet your mother-in-law, is visiting and you’re getting ready to go out for a ride, strap that thing across your crotch. One strap goes right between your legs and the other two around your butt. You’ll have to hold it in the back, but you only have to “wear” it for a minute or two, until it gets noticed. When your mother-in-law is taken aback, calmly explain how cold it is out there and how poorly insulated bike shorts are. See how long you can keep the hoax going until you burst out laughing. See? Indoor training is fun!
Oh, one more thing on moisture. No matter what other precautions you take, you’ll want to dry off your bike carefully after the ride, and dry off your headphones too. If you have the over-the-ear type headphones, take a tissue and get all the sweat off the inside of the cushions. I already wrecked a pair by not doing this faithfully enough. (I happen to know that if you do wreck your Bose headphones, and they’re out of warranty, you can still trade them in for a big discount on a new pair.) Also, take the insoles out of your shoes and dry them in a sunny window, and if it was a long workout and you’re going again the next day, you might want to stuff newspapers in your shoes.
If you’ve made it through this much text, chances are good that you have the stamina you need to embrace an indoor training regimen and really stick with it. Of course, sticking with it only means riding the trainer during the dark, wet months; if you’ve ridden the trainer a lot, you’ll be more than happy to leave it behind until the next winter.
And now, as promised, the appendices. The first one concerns types and brands of trainers and their pros and cons (as the title of this piece kind of promised). The other appendix is about music and training, as I have more to say on this matter.
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APPENDIX A – Trainer Types — Pros and Cons
The Wind Trainer
My first trainer (back in the ‘80s) was a Specialized thing that supported the bike under the bottom bracket and had these “Tailwind Fans” at the back for resistance. The fans were pretty darn loud, and the thing took a good while to set up each time, but it basically worked until somebody in my household stuffed newspaper in the fans for reasons I never did grasp. In any event, you can’t buy this type of trainer anymore so don’t even worry about it.
In the ‘90s I had a set of Al Kreitler rollers with the “Headwind Fan.” The fan sat about six feet ahead of the rollers and was powered by a belt running to the front roller. Hands-down this won the “green” award. The fan was plenty powerful enough, and it blew on you harder the harder you rode, which was great. A little door on the fan made it possible to control the resistance, which was incredible as well—more than enough workout. The fan was pretty loud, though, and frankly it was hard to mount the rollers day after rainy day because they do require skill to ride, and sometimes you just want to grind away without doing anything tricky. The other problem is that I got these rollers for free because they’d sat in a friend’s car in the sun and melted. The drums weren’t round anymore, so it was a bumpy ride. I called them the Paris-Roubaix rollers. I’d doubtless still be using them (at least some of the time), except—I’m embarrassed to say—I somehow lost them. I’ve often thought of replacing them, but Al Kreitler rollers, especially with the fan, cost a truly breathtaking amount of money. Chances are, if you make enough money to afford the Kreitlers, you don’t have time to ride.
There is a really good reason to get rollers, which is that they improve your form. You can always tell when somebody’s been riding rollers because his or her pedal stroke is really smooth, and he or she can ride in a perfectly straight line. The fixed trainer, meanwhile, has you pedaling squares afterward. (As I mentioned before, though, you probably won’t always feel like balancing on rollers; just about everybody I know who rides indoors has a stationary trainer instead of, or in addition to, rollers.)
If you get rollers, make sure they have resistance of some kind. Most rollers, oddly, don’t offer this. Without resistance, you can get a good warm-up, but not a very good workout. Some rollers have smaller-radius drums that are supposed to make pedaling harder; I haven’t tried them myself.
The Magnetic-Resistance Stationary Trainer
There are still plenty of magnetic-resistance trainers out there; for many years I used the Blackburn Trakstand. The only real problem with this trainer was that after a few years of frequent use, I began having a problem that I think is endemic to magnetic-resistance trainers: the Screeching Blades of Whirling Death. Somehow the spinning disk in there got too close to the magnet and started to rub. I found that by dinking around with the resistance knob I could mitigate this, at least at first. But the problem went from extremely intermittent to once in awhile to somewhat often to almost unavoidable. The screeching could be halted, but it was mighty frustrating to have to jump off and dink with the adjustment knob several times per ride.
Eventually the only solution was to set the thing to maximum resistance and leave it there. This worked for at least a year or two, and then I started sporadically having the Screeching Blades of Whirling Death all over again. I tried to solve this by shouting profanities. This did nothing. So then I directed the profanities right at the resistance unit. Amazingly, this did quiet the screeching for a short while (though this could have been coincidence). When it started up again I switched to kicking the crap out of the resistance unit with one cleated shoe while pedaling one-legged. This worked sometimes, failed sometimes, but always made me feel a bit better. Finally one day I kicked the thing too hard and it ground to a halt. Fuming, and sweating profusely from my exertion, I took the resistance unit apart, burning myself on the blade in the process. The blade was all bent up from my kicking, which is weird because the plastic cowling hadn’t broken. (Isn’t that a great word—cowling?)
I straightened out the blade, removed a bunch of ground-off metal filings that had stuck to the magnet, put it all back together, and—dang, there was still the awful grinding. So I took apart a bike chain and took some of the bushings out and used these to space the blade a bit farther from the magnet, and—voilà!—the trainer was good to go for many more years. By the time I had my final episode of the Screeching Blades of Whirling Death, which inspired me to kick the trainer literally to death, I’d gotten like ten years out of it. The powder coat finish had completely peeled off and most of the trainer was rusted. So I can’t say I was exactly disappointed with its longevity. (My brother has a somewhat newer version of the same trainer and also struggles regularly with the Screeching Blades of Whirling Death.)
The Fluid-Resistance Stationary Trainer
Now I have the CycleOps Fluid2. It’s more stable than the Blackburn, which had a tendency to drift around across the floor. The CycleOps’ legs can adjust to make it stable on an uneven surface, which is cool. It also has a bigger roller than other trainers I’ve seen, which may be why I’ve never gotten a flat with it (which did happen on the older-style trainers, oddly enough, and not just to me). The CycleOps is fairly quiet, but I still recommend noise-canceling headphones. I’m frankly not sure why these trainers make any noise at all. They just kind of whir. If you want to know what the CycleOps sounds like, play that video at the top of this post.
The only odd thing about this trainer is that it doesn’t give me enough resistance when I’m riding out of the saddle at a really low cadence (as when I’m trying to simulate a really steep climb, which is most of what I do on the road). It’s possible I got a defective unit, though perhaps this is just a silly thing that I’m trying to do. Since I only do this for a few minutes at a time, I’ve experimented with using a good old-fashioned leather toe strap to lightly apply the rear brake—just enough so the pads drag on the rim for extra resistance. This works just fine, and has the added benefit of making me feel (in my distorted mental state) like I’m some kind of badass.
I included all this trainer information as an appendix because frankly, the type and brand of trainer you get will likely have a lot less to do with your fitness than the rest of the things I discuss in this essay. Imagine telling your training buddies, who have just had to wait for you for several minutes at the top of a climb, “Sorry, guys, I bought the Travel Trac instead of the CycleOps, and I’m really feeling it.”
Oh, one more thing about good intentions. I just looked on craigslist, and found a Bell trainer for $60, a CycleOps for $150, a Minoura (new in the box) for $130, a Vetta for $25, and several others. I’ll bet none of them has been used more than once or twice. Assuming that very few well-intentioned cyclists will read this blog and save their money, you’ll probably always have plenty of used trainers to choose from if you’re looking to save a few bucks.
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APPENDIX B – A Few More Notes About Training with Music
Since I’ve recommended music so emphatically as a way to train harder, I think it’s my duty to point out that I don’t support riding outdoors with headphones and in fact strongly discourage it. First of all, it just dangerous: not only because you can’t hear cars coming up behind you, but because as I described above, the music puts you into something like a trance. You just become lost in it, and cannot be as alert to your surroundings. A good friend of mine made me promise never to ride with headphones after a friend of his, riding with headphones, was hit by a car and suffered brain damage. I’ve held to that promise.
“But wait,” you tell me, “I’m one of those guys who likes to live on the edge and thinks you’re just a buzz-kill cowardly lecturing-parent-type, and/or I falsely equate the dangerousness of riding with headphones to the likelihood of being hit by a meteor.” To which I respond: first of all, it would be a meteorite in that case, dumbass, and besides, people who ride with headphones are obnoxious. I ride up behind the headphone-wearer and say hi and he doesn’t notice, and I feel snubbed until I notice the headphones, by which time it’s too late because I’ve already decided he’s a jerk. Plus, on many occasions I’ve accidentally startled a headphone-wearing cyclist, just by my very presence (my greeting having been unheard), and he then decides that I’m a jerk (which, true or not, isn’t the point). So just don’t do it.
Okay, now that I’ve gotten that disclaimer out of the way, here are some examples of music that has served me will in my hundreds of hours of indoor training. It’s possible or likely you’d hate some or much or all of this music, which is fine; all I’m saying is that this music has the right beat to support a useful indoor riding cadence.
Nine Inch Nails
Red Hot Chili Peppers
Stone Temple Pilots
Another thing I’ll point out is that riding indoors to music can offer, or at least has given me, the opportunity for useful “flashbacks.” That is, after a solid regimen of indoor training accompanied by the right music, you may find yourself on the road one day minding your own business when suddenly your circumstances will require a sudden increase in output, and a good harsh angry trainer song will pop into your head, unleashing your useful dark side. Consider this true story, taken from my 2006 training diary:
Well, there I was, out there feeling like death-not-even-warmed-over, more like death-left-out-all-night-to-get-stale-and-then-served-cold, with nothing to give the pedals, hating myself, hating the frigid, foggy weather, hating my malfunctioning HAC4 bike computer, hating cycling, just dragging myself along up Fish Ranch Road, heart rate barely even in the zone, putting out fewer than 100 watts if the HAC4 was to be believed, which it wasn't, wondering how I could possibly be so tired, lamenting having had to cut the ride seriously short for sheer fatigue, in short just totally demoralized, and then, shortly after turning right on Grizzly Peak to head home, all of a sudden, out of the blue, for no apparent reason, with no provocation whatsoever, this dude blows by me. And frankly it kind of shocked me, because he didn't give me much room, much less in fact than he really ought to have given me, and I stared at him, wondering how he could be going that much faster than I, pathetic as my pace in fact was.
And I quickly realized that this was a Major League Wanker. His helmet had this giant visor on it. He was wearing this big puffy neon-green jacket, and riding a $3,000 cawbun fibuh bike of vulgar brand, both expensive and unimpressive, devoid of character but completely yuppy. Of course he had the big seat bag, stuffed full of every accessory the lucky bike shop salesman had been able to talk him into buying. He also had this giant red LED tail-light, the oversized one that looks like a Ford Taurus, or like something out of Star Trek: The Next Generation. And the worst part? He was out of the saddle, but instead of rocking the bike from side to side, he was going straight up and down, like some damn human piston, a guy who is only vaguely aware of the need to get out of the saddle when attacking but without having the foggiest idea what you're actually supposed to do. And he had this look in his eye, like he'd seen the prize and now was going to get it. No greeting, no nod, just a pure animal resolve to kick my club-jersey wearing, cool-Euro-bike-riding, low-velocity-achieving ass.
How on earth did this goob manage to blow by me so fast? I mean, sure, maybe he could set his sights on me and gradually reel me in, but how was he going like 15 mph up like a 7% grade? Then it hit me—duh, he hadn't turned onto Grizzly Peak road like I had; he'd been on it already. He came from the other side of the intersection, so he'd been going downhill. This loser had seen me toiling away up ahead, and had decided (despite terrible visibility owing to the fog, the idiot) to blow through the stop sign and keep all his momentum, the better to school me. Passing too close was just his little "Top Gun" gesture—you know, a little flair, a little panache as he crushed me. Okay buddy, I thought, that is it. I don't care how lousy I'm feeling, I am going to do whatever it takes to smack you down. Instantly I got this rap song in my head, "You wanna be me," by Nas:
“So you … wanna be me
You bitch you phoney you clone me
You wanna be me? Son:
I’m the one and only, but you
Wanna be me
You suckers, you weak, you flunkies, you fake
You couldn’t come close on my worst day, but you
Wanna be me
I’ll burn you and learn you a lesson
Concerning this my profession
Turn your direction
You can’t be me.
Not in your wildest fantasy.”
I started hammering, and lo and behold, my frail, tired heart and limp legs started to get themselves together, just as a flat inner tube starts to unfold when you pump air into it. I started kicking out 450 watts, if the HAC is to be believed, which it probably isn't, and my HR crept up above the zone, but just barely, to 161-162, and in accordance with natural law, I started reeling in El Dorko Mejor pretty quickly. By the time I overtook him, his momentum was all gone and he was showing his true colors, which were not pretty. I didn't look back (lest he realize I even considered him worth paying attention to), and I didn't dare slow down. For three minutes I kept on it, eking out a passable performance, and only when I approached my turnoff (to descend South Park) did I look over my shoulder. Of course the Nerdinator was nowhere to be seen. I hope he savored his moment of glory, because he'll never be getting it again.
It’s also possible (at least I find it possible) to insert a good song in your head as you begin, say, a hard climb. Most likely you won’t be able to sync your cadence to it, but the spirit of it might help you keep up your intensity. At a bare minimum, a mental library of rap or hard rock tunes can help you out should you be riding along with, inexplicably, some random song, say Elton John’s “Daniel,” stuck in your head.