Sunday, December 14, 2014

Riding Rollers - Frequently Asked Questions

NOTE:  This post is rated PG-13 for mature themes and mild strong language.


Decades ago, when there was no such thing as a mountain bike and the stationary trainer was in its infancy, any racer who could afford it bought a set of rollers.  I wasn’t so lucky, and though as a teen I did win a turbo-trainer in a (rigged) raffle at the Coors Classic Christmas party, I didn’t own a set of rollers until college.  I somehow managed to lose those (maybe my roommate snagged them?) and didn’t buy another set until somewhat recently. 

I’m back riding rollers now, and this post is both a tribute and a useful how-to guide that will tell you (almost) everything you ever wanted to know, or didn’t even know you wanted to know, about riding rollers.  (I say “almost” because I don’t explain herein how to ride rollers.  Just get on and do it, and if you fall off, well, brush yourself off, acknowledge that it is sweet and fitting to hate yourself, and get back on.)

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Riding Rollers – Frequently Asked Questions

Q.  Why should I ride indoors at all?  After all, the Velominati “Rules” website says, “If you are out riding in bad weather, it means you are a badass.  Period.”

A.  First of all, the authority of the Velominati has been thoroughly dismissed in these pages.  I’ve also written at length about the absurdity of choosing to ride in the rain.  Unless you live in such a cold or rainy place you have to capitulate, training indoors makes a lot of sense.

Q.  Why ride rollers instead of a trainer?

A.  You can always tell when a guy has been riding a trainer a lot because he’s pedaling squares.  Rollers, on the other hand, smooth out your form and enhance your grace on the bike.  But that’s only part of why you should ride them.

Frankly, you should ride rollers simply because it’s tricky—because as you get older you need to convince yourself you’ve still got it.  Plus, if you’re the parent of a teenager—a member of the narcissistic “selfie” generation—you must show him or her that there are still cool things you can do that he or she can’t. 

(My teenage daughter, reading this over my shoulder, takes umbrage at the suggestion she’s narcissistic.  She certainly isn’t, and has never taken a selfie, but since I’m running out of things I’m better at than she, it’s important that she sees me riding rollers and is suitably impressed.)

Besides, anything that improves your balance mitigates the risk that when you’re really old you’ll fall and break your hip, which is so often the beginning  of the end for the elderly. 

Q.  I’m a teenager, and I think learning to ride rollers looks like a lot of hassle.  And I don’t need to worry about balance because I will never get old and I will never die. 

A.  Wow, my blog attracted a teenager!  That’s amazing!  Wait, where are you going?  Come back, I won’t bite! 

Okay, look.  It’s time to admit that you’ll never have a massive presence on Vine, and nobody is going to “like” that Instagram photo of your cheesecake as much as the identical cheesecake photo sent around by a popular or attractive kid.  But imagine posting a YouTube video of yourself eating half a grapefruit, properly, with a spoon, while riding rollers no-handed (the acid test of m4d sk1llz in this albeit remote realm).  If your video were to end with you tilting your head back to drink the juice and thus crashing, that video might get a lot of hits!  Man, it’s a shame there was no Internet or YouTube when I was thirteen…

Q.  Say I buy a pair of rollers and like them.  Should I get rid of my fluid trainer?

A.  No, keep it around because sometimes you just want to zone out, mosh on the pedals stupidly, and not have to keep up that finesse.  I’m keeping my trainer even though the damn thing has developed this horrible knocking sound I’m too lazy to troubleshoot, which is embarrassing because years ago I positioned myself as an authority on choosing a trainer, and now this thing’s dying even though it’s not that old.  At least, it doesn’t seem that old.  Though actually, I came across this video involving the box that trainer came in, and I guess it’s not that new.

That little girl in the video?  She (the aforementioned non-narcissistic teenager) is over 5-foot-3 now and rode up Mount Diablo with me not long ago.

Q.  My wife has a policy about physical objects that take up space in the home or garage:  to justify its existence, she says on object “has to either be making me happy, or making me money.”  By this standard, how can I justify owning both a trainer and rollers?

A.  If we’re permitted to define happiness as “absence of unhappiness,” remind your wife how crucial exercise is to your physical and mental health.  Given your hopeless starch addiction, If you didn’t have all the tools necessary to facilitate your exercise, you’d end up looking like Henry VIII.  Would your wife really enjoy being crushed under all that weight?  Besides, without exercise you’d also be as grumpy as Henry VIII, and we all know how that panned out.  (This is an especially powerful argument in my household, as my wife has failed to produce a male heir.)

(By the way, I have made money via riding rollers.  When I was a UC Santa Barbara student, the cycling team set up a roller demonstration in the student plaza to raise money for our trip to nationals.  We put out a hat to collect donations, and offered to try really advanced tricks—stuff that had “never before been attempted,” like riding rollers no-handed or at 50 mph—if somebody would drop in a $10 or $20 bill.  Plus, when one of our more hunky roller-demo riders, the affectionately nicknamed Brad Longshlong, got his photo on the front page of the school paper, that was arguably better publicity than the team got when we won a national title.)

Q.  My rollers don’t have a magnetic resistance thingy.  I can pedal along at over 25 mph without actually getting much of a workout.  Is there any way to add resistance without spending any money?

A.  The best rollers, which would be Al Kreitlers with the Headwind Fan, give you all the resistance you could want.  But even if you have more basic rollers, there are a couple things you can do.

First off, when riding rollers, use your old “rain bike” with its non-compact crank (i.e., higher gearing) and its old-school, less aerodynamic wheels.  You can also put cards in the spokes to hamper the aerodynamics.  I haven’t done any scientific tests to see if this actually helps, but as everybody knows, cards in the spokes is just plain fun.  [Update:  new Q/A answered at the end of this post describing the results of this experiment.]

If you’re really serious about a good workout, your best bet is to set up your brakes so they’re always on.  You could do this with a toe-strap crudely wrapped around the brake lever, but the better way is to open the brake quick-release cam and then tighten the brake, using the barrel-adjuster, so it’s almost rubbing.  Then, during the ride, you can adjust the braking by turning down the QR cam to the desired resistance.

Q.  But won’t having my brakes on the whole time cause my rims to get super-hot, thus damaging my brake pads?

A.  As it turns out, the amount of drag necessary to give you a good workout doesn’t actually generate very much heat.  What really makes rims hot is braking on a descent, which involves much greater forces, such as gravity.  Consider this hypothetical scenario:  you and your brother Bryan are descending by bike to a party being held in a remote house along a mountain road.  The driveway is unmarked, so your other brother has promised to put out a sign or some balloons so you can find it… but he forgets, so you miss the turnoff, and then the mountain road turns to dirt, and you puncture several times until you’re out of spare tubes and patches, and you have to ride double on Bryan’s bike with your own bike over your shoulder.  Bryan is braking pretty hard to keep from stacking, which makes his hands so tired he has to stop periodically to rest them.  As you awkwardly climb off his bike, you actually burn yourself on his bike’s rim.  See?  All that weight, concentrated on one bike, gets those brakes hotter than your wrath toward the third brother … and yet, descending solo, your rims never get that hot, unless they’re carbon rims and you’re an under-skilled and overweight stockbroker riding Levi’s Granfondo.

Q.  The floor of my man-cave isn’t perfectly level.  How can I level my rollers?

A.  Palace a coin under each foot on one side.  Use British pound coins; they’re thicker.  If this isn’t enough to level your rollers, you need to re-pour the foundation of your man-cave, or set the rollers up in your wife’s secret underground lair (in which case you should put a tarp down to protect the hardwood floor).

Q.  Say I’m a teenager and don’t have my own rollers so I’m at my friend’s place riding his, and his foster parents’ four-year-old is fishing for attention by running across the room and diving into a bean bag chair, and I’m ignoring her because I don’t want to encourage her attention-junkie ways, and/or I’m just a dick, and finally she gets so frustrated at the lack of attention she comes up and grabs my handlebars and pulls me off the rollers.  What should I do?

A.  Do nothing.  In particular, don’t yell at her because then she’ll start crying and run and get her mom, who is one weird lady.

Q.  What if my cat, mesmerized by the spinning wheels and also not very bright, tries to jump right through my wheel?

A.  This could never happen.  No cat is that stupid.  The person who warned you about that “possibility” is a broken-down alcoholic and it’s really sad.

Q.  What if the power goes out while I’m riding rollers, and there’s not enough natural light to see by?

A.  If you’re in the basement of your apartment building and not near a wall, all you can do is crash.  If you’re near the wall and the power is going out for just a few seconds at a time (for example, if it’s 6 a.m. and the biggest winter storm in ten years is wreaking havoc), brace an elbow on the wall until the lights come back on.  If they go out for good, but you’ve already taken your NoDoz and you’re halfway through your workout and thus too amped-up and sweaty to go back to bed and don’t care to shower in the dark, just set up some candles on either side of the front roller, to use like airport landing lights.  You may find this mood lighting takes your relationship with your rollers to a whole new level. Next time I think I’ll scatter little rose petals around as well.

Q.  But wait, if the power is out, the fan won’t work!  What about the ravages of sweat on my equipment?  And won’t I overheat?

A.  Open some windows.  This works great if you can get some cross-ventilation, especially if it’s cold out and the wind is really blowing.

Q.  But what if the rain comes blowing in the window and gets all over my expensive wireless LAN equipment?

A.  Spec your man-cave out with a Meraki MR72 Ruggedized Access Point.  That bad boy is built to withstand harsh environmental conditions:  not just rain, but extreme temperature ranges from -40°F to 140°F.  (Trust me:  if it’s -40° or 140° out, you’re really better off riding indoors.)


A couple of readers wrote in with more questions, and even did me the service of providing the answers. Plus, I now have the results of my cards-in-the-spokes experiment.

Q. Should I watch bike videos/races while riding my rollers?

A. Probably not. Even a very skilled rider (like my East Bay Velo Club pal Ryan, who wrote in with this question) may occasionally get too wrapped up in what’s onscreen, and veer off the side. This isn’t the same as a high-speed crash, but the bike can leave you behind and careen forward, possibly even into the TV. Meanwhile, as Ryan points out, “It is very difficult to watch a descent without leaning when you see the cyclists on TV lean in the turns.”

Q. What’s with these crazy-looking rollers that have a smaller diameter than mine? I’m oddly impressed and intimidated by them but I don’t know why.

A. You’re right to feel intimidated. As detailed here, smaller-diameter rollers provide greater resistance. Kreitler explains why: “For a given wheel speed, smaller drums rotate at higher RPM’s than larger drums, producing more friction in the sealed cartridge bearings. Smaller drums also create more tire friction because the roller has a smaller contact patch and indents the tire more.” If you don’t have the money to spring for a set of Kreitler rollers with 2.25-inch drums, perhaps letting some air out of your tires (so they indent more, increasing friction) would help. (Thanks to my cycling pal Phil for bringing this up.)

Q. So how did the cards in the spokes work out?

A. Really well, actually! Probably in part because my high-power fan (see photo above) points up at the front wheel, the wind drag of those cards makes pedaling a lot harder. In fact, depending on what cadence you prefer, how high your gearing is, how hard you like to go, and how strong you are, the cards in the spokes might offer all the resistance you need (thus obviating the need for messing with the barrel-adjusters on your brakes).


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