Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Cycling Guidelines, or How Not To Be a Fred - Part II


In my last post I explored the difference between a) being a cycling fascist, and b) helping the reserved novice avoid some behavioral pitfalls that could cause embarrassment.  In short, I described how to avoid looking like a “Fred.”  Nobody wants to be this guy (except maybe this guy):

Rather than positioning myself as an authority, I surveyed 37 of my veteran cycling pals to see which behaviors are totally normal and acceptable; which are borderline (as in “I wouldn’t do it...”); and which are (in the survey’s words) “laughably Fredtastic.”  My last post covered all but the top ten most egregious behaviors; this one explores the very most frowned-upon.

Before we get started

I want to emphasize that I fully support the novice (or expert!) cyclist who doesn’t give a rat’s ass what is “done” and what is not, and cheerfully flies in the face of convention.  This post may help that sort of cyclist enjoy his rebellion more; after all, there’s no joy in unknowingly transgressing.  Moreover, this study shows how much wiggle-room exists, since there is somewhat limited consensus among those surveyed about cycling DOs and DON’Ts.

Also, I’m going to use “he,” “his,” and “him” throughout this post, simply because “he or she,” “his or her,” and “him or her” are too clunky.  Can a woman be a Fred?  Yes.  Have people tried to create a gender-specific term (e.g., “Freida”) for a female Fred?  Yes.  Did the below photo accompany a blog post called “Bicycling:  Are you a Fred?”  Yes.  Would the person shown below be welcome on a group ride with my club?  Yes, yes, yes.

Survey results – the top ten

(To see the 10th through 20th most frowned-upon behaviors, and to see a tabular summary of the behaviors that didn’t make the top 20, click here.

10th Most Fredtastic:  screwing up rotating paceline

When I was first compiling the questions for my survey (which were based on my own observations, my Internet searches on the topic, and consulting my bike pals) somebody rightly pointed out that fashion missteps are only part of the puzzle; poor technique can be every bit as damning.  Perhaps we should go easy on technique, though, since the intricacies of this sport can take a long time to learn (whereas it ought to be pretty obvious which is the front of your helmet and which is the back).  One respondent remarked that poor skills “are totally correctable and the responsibility is on us old schoolers to educate the newbies.”

On the other hand, it’s perfectly reasonable for the novice to brush up on his skills before joining a group ride.  What is to be done, though, when the skill in question can only be learned by riding in a pack?  The rotating paceline is a perfect example—it is impossible to learn this on your own.  (If you’re not familiar with this term, click here.) 

You may find it perplexing how little slack the respondents gave to the novice who screws up the rotating paceline.  Nobody found this acceptable, 39% tagged it as borderline, and 61% chose laughably Fredtastic.

I think this harsh judgment derives from just how frustrating it is when you’ve got, say, ten riders who are this close to achieving a gloriously efficient paceline, but there’s one guy who just doesn’t get it, and the whole thing gets gummed up and instead of blissfully pouring everything into the pedals and really hauling ass, everybody has to be making constant adjustments.  It doesn’t take long to identify the person who is cocking things up, or which of the many possible mistakes he’s making: 
  • Surging when at the front of the fast line, making the whole line adjust, so the guy at the back, moving over from the slow line, has a devil of a time;
  • Swinging too  far out to the side;
  • Failing to slow down slightly after moving over to the front of the slow line;
  • Getting to the front of the fast line and then unconsciously matching (instead of slightly exceeding) the speed of the guy at the head of the slow line, thus stalling out the rotation;
  • Getting to the back of the slow line and somehow forgetting to move over to the back of the fast line, causing widespread disorientation;
  • Perhaps due to being lazy, weak, or unfocused, randomly letting big gaps open ahead of him, which introduces a rubber-band effect to the whole line;
  • Failing to keep out of the way of the rotating riders when he’s given up doing his share and is sitting on the back.
Frankly, once the novice rider has achieved a comfort level with riding in close quarters, the rotating paceline actually isn’t that difficult a concept.  When I see somebody fouling up the paceline, I myself have little patience (though, like the others, I bear the frustration silently).

A nice counterpoint to all this was provided by a respondent:  “If someone screws up a paceline, the bad is on you for not going fast enough. In fact, screwing up a paceline is a good way to thumb your nose at a bunch of slow riders.”

9th Most Fredtastic:  water bottle behind saddle

Do a Google image search on “worldtour cycling time trial.”  You won’t see a single photo of a bottle mounted behind the saddle.  This is partly because of UCI article 1.3.024 bis:  “Bottles ... may only be located on the down and seat tubes on the inside of the frame.”  Do the pro cyclists chafe at this?  No.  That rule didn’t exist until 2013, before which time pro cyclists never used rear-mounted bottle cages anyway.

Think about that.  Some of these guys are willing to do an awful lot just to go faster.  They’ll tolerate headaches incurred by sleeping in oxygen-deprivation tents; they’ll take dangerous and illegal drugs; they’ll thaw and inject previously frozen blood; and they’ll do a five-hour ride, then guzzle a ton of fizzy water, pop a few sleeping pills, and try to sleep through dinner, to lose weight.  That all these pro cyclists refused to use a rear-mounted bottle, even back when it was legal, says either a) there isn’t actually much aerodynamic benefit to this; b) it’s inefficient trying to access a rear-mounted bottle;  or c) they still have some pride.  Whatever the case, nothing looks more tri—and less roadie—than a rear-mounted bottle.

The survey results confirm this:  two respondents (~6%) found this bottle placement acceptable; 31% said borderline; and 64% said Fredtastic. 

I think I know the two guys who said this was okay ... they’re real jokers who like to steal water from triathletes, so they don’t have to carry their own.  Yes, I made that up.  The real explanation may have to do with my survey question, which included handlebar-mounted bottles, which used to be popular (i.e., in the 1930s).   Maybe we’ve got a couple retro-types in the group.

A final note:  UCI 1.3.024 bis also states, “It is forbidden to place an empty bottle (without any liquid) on the bicycle.”  I guess this is why racers always discard their empty bottles:  they’re just following the rules!  Since fans get to retrieve these discarded bottles, it’s a win-win.

8th Most Fredtastic:  aero bars

Okay, that same Google search shows that virtually all WorldTour cyclists use aero bars during time trials.  So why is it that only 5% of my panel found aero bars acceptable on club rides, while 32% said borderline and 62% said Fredtastic?

Well, racing a time trial with these bars is one thing (we might tell ourselves we have to, because our competitors are), but why would you ever train with them?  What’s that you say?  “Practice”?  Who needs to practice?

In 1990, on the night before the collegiate national championship team time trial, my UCSB teammates and I finally got around to installing the aero bars on our funny bikes.  These were the über-cool kind of TT bike (now illegal) that had a smaller front wheel and down-sloping top tube.  We’d only ridden these bikes once (in the conference championship TTT), and that was just with the bullhorn bars.  Four of us had never tried aero bars on any bike.  So, after mounting the aero bars, we took one short test ride, in the dark, through downtown Palo Alto.  Given that we rode the bikes flawlessly the next day, winning the TTT, the single, brief test run was (by definition) all the practice we needed.  So why would anybody need to train with these bars on an ongoing basis?  You might as well have a sign around your neck saying, “I have a confidence problem,” or “I am a slow learner.”

I guess the other problem with showing up to a club ride with aero bars is that, since nobody else is using them, you might appear to be seeking some kind of equipment advantage.  Notwithstanding the fact that some roadies train on deep-dish carbon wheels, we’d all like to pretend that on training rides we prefer a level playing field.

7th Most Fredtastic:  big puffy jacket

I see people on fancy-pants road bikes with standard-issue Lycra bike shorts and then these big poofy nylon jackets, like an inverted MC Hammer.  This kind of jacket looks way too warm and there’s no way it’d scrunch up small enough to stuff in a jersey pocket, or even in the Fred’s oversized seat bag.  Experienced cyclists know to wear thin layers and constantly make adjustments (zipping, unzipping, scrunching down arm warmers, stowing things, etc.) instead of alternately suffocating and freezing.

6th Most Fredtastic:  not holding line

It’s understandably unnerving when somebody two inches ahead of you, or right next to you, wobbles around on the road, drifts due to inattention, or chooses the wrong line through a curve.  It seems irresponsible to join a group ride without having mastered the basic skill of riding in a straight line.  Perhaps that’s why a quarter of the panel called this failure borderline, 3% called it normal, and 72% said Fredtastic.

But you know what I’ve encountered more often, and which is also totally annoying?  It’s when one rider, usually in a race, yells at another for this infraction.  This is the most common criticism I’ve heard in the peloton and seems to be the rough equivalent of a motorist honking his horn. 

Usually, it’ like crying wolf:  I’ve heard this accusation far more often than I’ve seen it warranted.  During one collegiate cycling season, I fielded this complaint several times—even though in the years before and the years after, and even during USCF races that same year, I never heard boo.  Did I have a four-month lapse in skill?  No, it’s because that spring, using my brother’s student ID, I was racing for the tiny, virtually unknown Cuesta Community College Pedalers (CCCP).  Little teams like that always end up taking the brunt of riders’ frustrations:  “Goddammit, hold your line, Cuesta!”  I have it on good authority that no less accomplished a bike handler than Davis Phinney used to get this kind of verbal abuse when he was on Austro-Daimler and AMF, but never heard another peep once he joined 7-Eleven.

5th Most Fredtastic:  nervous, erratic riding

It’s not hard to see why nervous, erratic riding would bother people.  Nobody found this acceptable, 19% said borderline, and 81% flagged it Fredtastic.

Cycling, after all, is a social sport.  A two-hour ride with one pal is basically “My [Rolling] Dinner With André,” and a three-hour ride with the club is basically a three-hour cocktail party, as stoplights and such reshuffle the group so everybody gets to chat with everybody else.  Who wants to be next to the guy who is wobbling around, slamming on the brakes during descents, surging on all the climbs, and/or generally exuding the wrong vibe?

4th Most Fredtastic:  fanny pack etc.

The fully category here is “fanny pack or anything tied around the waist.”  Yes, people really do wear fanny packs while cycling.

The panel was pretty judgmental on this one:  a whopping 84% said it was Fredtastic, and 14% said it was borderline.  Only one person approved it.  I think that was me.  You see, when I ride with my daughter, I end up schlepping her stuff.  Sometimes this stuff includes—gasp!—a thick long-sleeved extra jersey (as un-stowable as a big puffy jacket).  I do a balancing act between showing my daughter the ropes and indulging her comfort, not wanting to sour her on the sport as she adjusts to it.  Meanwhile, the un-stowable garment isn’t so silly when you have someone to carry it for you; as my daughter wrote in her Grizzly Peak Century report recently, “Everyone needs a Sherpa!”  Since the jersey won’t fit in my pocket, I tie it around my waist.  If necessary, I’ll continue this practice when my daughter starts joining our club rides.

That said, I’d never ever own, much less wear, a fanny pack, on the bike or anywhere else.

Okay, are you ready for the podium?

3rd Most Fredtastic:  knee-high socks

I can only speculate on the mental illness that would cause a cyclist to wear knee-high socks, but I think we can divide this (thankfully small, but ominously growing) population into two categories:  those who are having a little carefree fun, and those who actually think they’re getting physiological benefit from their socks.

Let’s start with the first group.  Obviously, tall socks have a market:  those whimsical, fun-loving fashion vanguards.  Consider these:

Meanwhile, audacious socks are a perfect way for a cycling rebel to have some fun; consider this tale about Floyd Landis deliberately tweaking his competitors in his first road race by wearing tall, loud argyle socks.

But there’s a darker side to knee-high socks:  the whole “compression sock” notion.  Some actually believe that these socks will help you recover, etc. and you’ll actually be a better cyclist.  Usually this fallacy only destroys your post-ride wardrobe, but some people (I hesitate to call them cyclists) are now wearing them while training, or (gasp!) even while racing.

Please, somebody write in and tell me the above picture was Photoshopped.  I vomited mentally when I discovered it.  Fortunately, tall socks are confined to the idiot fringe of road racing, and I’m sure the offensive rider shown above was punished severely by the peloton.  (As a former pro once told me, it’s very difficult to help someone win a race, but very easy to make him lose.)

Needless to say, my panel had little patience for this tall-sock silliness; only 16% found it borderline, and everybody else rightly tagged it Laughably Fredtastic.

2nd Most Fredtastic:  underwear under cycling shorts

When I proposed this as a category, one teammate replied, “This is a myth. Perhaps you recall it from a waking dream as an undergraduate studying absurdist literature but it never happened.”  This was quickly countered by another guy:  “Underwear under Lycra DOES happen!  On a Cal cycling team ride circa spring 2001, a young female newbie was clearly wearing underwear under her Lycra.  She was also wearing a sweater tied around her waist.”

Obviously, it doesn’t make much sense to do this, since the so-called chamois has been specially engineered to wick away moisture, keeping baby drier (to quote a diaper commercial).  Why would you introduce a clammy cotton layer?

And yet, I myself have known three riders in favor of underwear under cycling shorts.  Many years ago, a teammate of mine trained with underwear but left it in the dresser on race day.  When I cheekily asked her why, I was brushed off with the comment, “It’s a woman thing.”  I never argue with that line of reasoning.

Four riders in our group ruled this behavior “borderline,” but everybody else said it was Fredtastic.

By the way, when researching a recent post I discovered that the yuppie/hipster website Coolhunting sells cycling-specific underwear.  Clearly, the assault on cycling’s image just never lets up.

Speaking of which, it’s time for our gold medal winner!

The Number One Most Fredtastic:  arm warmers with sleeveless jersey

It is in fact not terribly uncommon to see a cyclist wearing arm warmers and a sleeveless jersey at the same time.  (And no, I’m not talking about a sleeveless under-jersey plus a sleeved jersey.  Stop quibbling.)  Of all the behaviors in my survey, I think this is the most laughably Fredtastic of them all, so I was pleased to see this position reinforced by the panel.  A whopping 92% found this Fredtastic, 5% borderline, and just one renegade deemed it acceptable.  (Maybe that’s the smartass who was [hypothetically] quibbling about the under-jersey.)

This disapproval isn’t a matter of some cycling-specific fashion or tradition, and doesn’t pertain to the great cultural divide between road cycling and triathlon.  Nor is it a technically complicated matter, or anything safety-related.  It’s just a basic matter of the most obvious common sense.  Either the weather is cool enough for arm warmers, or it’s hot enough for a sleeveless jersey—it cannot possibly be both.  But since this logic evidently does elude some newbies, I’m going to break it down as simply as I can:

Of particular note here:  there is no box saying “Wear sleeveless jersey with arm warmers,” because there is simply no use case for this.  And yet, people do employ this combination.  Puzzling over whether there was some flaw in my decision tree, I consulted with my wife, who (though an accomplished cyclist) has no use for roadie culture.  After some thought, she said, “What if you have really nice shoulders?”

Aha!  Paradigm shift!  I had been operating under the unconscious assumption that function, comfort, and/or the prevailing fashion of the sport were driving people’s choices.  But what if the larger, weirder world of non-cycling fashion—that produces everything from tramp stamps to shredded jeans to giant women’s sunglasses to huge, ornate hats—were asserting itself?  Intrigued, I did a little Internet research and came upon “The Great Arm Warmer Debate.”

I didn’t really find this much of a debate.  The blogger herself, a cyclist named Shannon, has decided this combo is okay, and two out of three of her respondents agreed.  (The other reader comment was just praise of Shannon’s phrase “cyclist version of knee socks.”)  So this so-called “debate” was really more of an online love-in.  But it was illuminating:  here is a cycling cohort utterly unconcerned with things like function or tradition, who blithely occupy a kicky, fun universe and don’t identify as rebels.  And I have to admit, Shannon does have nice shoulders.

Maybe veteran cyclists like me are just bitter because our biceps are too wimpy to hold up our arm warmers unless we have elastic-trimmed sleeves to help out.  Or maybe our body fat is so low we can’t take cold shoulders in stride.  Perhaps we’ve suffered so much through this sport, we feel we’ve earned the privilege of scorning the unenlightened.

Or, maybe we’re just right.  Judge for yourself!


  1. Dads, when acting as Sherpas, are exempt from the rules of Fredsmanship.

  2. I had a quick check with our cycling group and the biggest thing, to a person, 100% of us thought was most idiotic and heinous - was people who thought they should invent rules about what should be done on a bike.

    And FYI, that person with the big sock in your image you took such pleasure in trying to humiliate, is actually wearing a compression aid for a muscle injury.

    However, I shall heed your advice and your rules and I shall absolutely rinse the piss out of one of our lads in the group who has a saddle bag. He has it for his insulin because he is diabetic - but you know what, he is breaking the rule.

    What a loser he is.

    Thank you, the world is a better place with these kind of rules and people like you for sharing them.

    1. Thanks for the input. I tried to convey that these are not rules, per se, but guidelines, and that I fully support the cyclist who chooses to ignore them. (Perhaps you grasp all that and are just being snarky, which I must say you're good at; I particularly enjoyed your phrase "rinse the piss.") I highly recommend you go over to and sprinkle your vitriol upon them ... I think they're a much bigger target than I.

  3. This shit puts me off riding my bike. Not good.

    1. I'm sorry you have this reaction ... that was not my intention. As I stated early on in the essay, "I want to emphasize that I fully support the novice (or expert!) cyclist who doesn’t give a rat’s ass what is “done” and what is not, and cheerfully flies in the face of convention." You should not let any guidelines, from anybody, deter you from riding.