Friday, September 2, 2011

Natural Progression of Triathlon- Biking

The Natural Progression of Triathlon- Biking is the most easily recognized and pretty much every person in the country has been through this process. The other Natural Progression posts can be found here, here, and here just in case you want to read up on the background. The following progression is for triathletes, if left to their own discretion, will follow through to completion.

Stage 1 Big Wheel or Tricycle

After learning to walk, the earliest form of transportation provides a stable 3-point base. The Big Wheel is characterized by a significantly larger front tire. The entire bike is generally made of cheap plastic, which, for the serious rider, is great for weight reduction. Most parents aren't willing to invest in the all-carbon Big Wheel according to market research. The handle bars are positioned slightly back compared to the vertical in an effort to make the machine more aerodynamic. The Big Wheel may also be the earliest form of recombinant bike as the rider is in a relaxed position.

The athlete may opt for the tricycle, which is closer to a more traditional style of biking in terms of position. It features a ladder at the rear to aid in mounting (a feature that should not have gone away in later steps of the progression). The seat is set in a steeper angle and the frame is traditionally made out of steel. The additional weight generally makes the ride slower and bumpier but energy transfer between the pedals and horizontal motion is more efficient due to the stiffness. Athletes may also gain additional leg strength as compared to their Big Wheel counterparts, but the current research has not been able to substantiate such claims. Whereas the Big Wheel is subject to wear and tear, the tricycle is more sturdy and been know to endure for generations.

Both bikes have a relatively small crank length and fixed gears. This makes it efficient to practice cadence drills and eliminates coasting on the downhills. Should the rider choose to stop pedaling, the brakes are activated. Most models come with a 'wind direction/ speed indicator', which are normally mounted as small streamers off the ends of the handlebars. Optional accessories include a bell, as shown on the tricycle, and a horn (not shown).

Stage 2 Road Bike with Training Wheels

One problem with Stage 1 of the progression is the lack of available sizing. Once the athlete outgrows the machine, he/ she is forced to upgrade to a traditional road bike with training wheels. Now, the athlete must navigate terrain with an additional wheel as compared to the Big Wheel or tricycle. Yet, given the more upright stance and placement of the wheels, the bike is generally less stable than it's 3-wheeled counterparts.

Road bikes are the first bicycle in the stage to feature pneumatic wheels and chain driven propulsion. Most bikes at this stage are fixies with special braking systems. Instead of not-pedaling, the rider must make the effort to pedal backwards to brake. This motion allowed the rider to coast down hills and recover after hard efforts. The con for this system is the athlete no longer is required to focus on cadence. Some bikes, such as the one pictured on the right, are the athlete's first experience with an aerodynamic frame and aero wheels perfect for road racing. The bike on the left may be preparing the athlete for a life in off-road style races.

Stage 3 BMX Style Rides

Eventually, the athlete will gain in bike handling skills and shed the training wheels. It helps if they have a runner in the family who is willing to follow along in the 2-wheel learning experience (I actually ran into the back of a Cadillac during mine). 

For some reason, kids merge into adolescence, they refuse to stop growing. As their mass increases, they need bigger gears to better match their mass-to-power ratios. This, of course, leads to larger bikes. The longer cranks and higher seat posts allow the young, future triathlete to practice their skills at higher speeds. The bikes also feature single gearing options but the braking system has been upgraded. Instead of holding the pedals or pedaling backwards, a lever/ caliper system is now in place. These bikes tend to be cast of steel or aluminum. As kids experiment with their biking skills, they may add tire posts which, contrary to popular belief, do not aid in aerodynamics

Possible Intermediate Stage- Mountain Bike
This stage is optional for many athletes. Whereas most will completely skip this step in the progression, it deserves recognition. Originally crafted as a commuter bike, the technology continued to advance to allow riders to tackle crappy city streets in comfort. The suspension in the front was specially developed for pot holes, curbs, and side walk cracks. As city maintenance went more by the wayside, the soft tail bike was born. Due to aggressive taxi cab drivers, riders decided that biking on paved pathways was no longer safe and found dirt paths and trails to ride. Only in extremely rare occasions will a rider actually cruise on a mountain, making the style of bike a misnomer of sorts. If this stage appeals to you, proceed with caution. Many triathletes never return from the Mountain Bike Purgatory of triathlon.

Stage 5 Road Bike (or ten-speed back in the day)
A generation ago, road bikes were called 10-speeds. This is the first bike in the Natural Progression that features changeable gearing. With 2 rings in the front and 5 in the back, the athlete had more choices to match the effort with the hill profile and desired cadence. Since then, some people add another ring in front which has been commonly referred to as the "Granny Gear" due to the ease as which the gearing can be pushed. Further, bicycle engineers played with the rear cogs adding more options and rendering the title 'Ten-Speed' useless.

The road bike features a not-so-steep saddle orientation. The frame materials have the greatest diversity thus far in the progression with steel, aluminum, carbon, and titanium all as viable options. Some road bikes will even include a combination of these materials, such as an aluminum bike with a carbon-fiber fork. The handlebars have morphed from a linear bar to bars that look like a ram's horns. (Rumor has it that the inventor of the road bike handlebar was a former rodeo clown.)

Once in a while, people will gather and ride their road bikes in groups. Group rides have all sorts of rules, most of which are unwritten yet still expected. If you choose to try a group ride, be very alert to the nuances of the individuals. They even have rules on clothing. They do not like sleeveless shirts or riding without socks. Sometimes, there will be road bike competitions that do not feature a swim nor a run. Often, group rides and races will encourage cyclists to get as close to the guy/ gal in front of you to cheat in their wind draft. Weird.

Stage 6 Road Bike with Clip-on Aerobars
This stage of the Natural Progression is important, but short. Where as the athlete will spend several years in the other stages, this stage is typically 2 years or less before graduating to the next stage. The athlete will notice that a steeper position in the saddle coupled with lying down on the handlebars is a more efficient position. This position can be semi-achieved by clip-ons. They don't actually 'clip' as the are clamped and bolted to the bike. In doing so, the athlete should rearrange the seat position to a more forward, steeper position. A steeper seat post position transfers the work from the athlete's hamstrings to the quadriceps. The new position is normally met with a slight drop in overall power. But, the body position on the bike results in improved aerodynamics. The result is a faster bike ride using less energy. Plus, by changing the muscle dynamics, the legs are more ready for a post-bike run.
Keep in mind that the addition of clip-ons automatically negates your welcome to ride in a group. People riding road bikes in groups have an instinctual prejudice against adding stuff to your road bike. Do not, under any circumstances, blame those people for their anti-areobar attitudes. They can't change their attitude it in as much as they can't control which way the wind is blowing.

Stage 7- Grand Culmination Factor in Triathlon- 
The Triathlon Specific Bike (Tri-Bike)
If left to their own means, a triathlete will arrive at the tri-bike. The tri bike is an evolutionary step up the ladder from the road bike (a scientifically proven fact that the roadies will do their best to hide). The tri bike features a naturally steep seat angle. The rear wheel, to compensate for the seat tube being moved forward, is also moved forward. This new rear wheel position makes the bike more aero thus faster. The consequence is that the bike is marginally less stable and the athlete would do well to remember their bike handling skills they learned in Stage 2 of the Progression. There are some rumors that say a tri bike is less efficient at climbing or cornering. These rumors were started by tri-bike haters and have not been substantiated. Even professional road bike riders will opt for a tri bike during a time trial stage.

Gone are the ram style handlebars, which are now replaced by bull horn style bars (not to be confused with the voice amplifier equipment of a similar name). These bars remove useless bends while keeping the same number of hand position options. Another advantage of the tri bike include integrated aerobars. These do not clip on, they are part of the bike. Like the road bike brethren, tri bikes can come in a variety of different building materials. Tri bikes place their gear levers at the ends of the aerobars and the brakes at the ends of the bull horns.

Tri bikes, and people who own tri bikes, are the envy of all the other bikes out on the road. They are sleeker, sexier, and faster. Most other bikes are really just hunks of metal with wheels. Tri bikes are beautiful works of art. And, just like anything featuring overt superiority, there are lots of negative emotions towards the tri bikes. Many people have different ways to show their jealousy, ranging from blatant disdain to passive aggressive indifference. Triathletes would be wise to ignore any negativity. Let it roll off you like the wind that rolls off the tri bike frame and put it behind you where it belongs. After all, you went through the progression. You understand what the others are going through. You have had the experiences and moved on to something better. If they choose to ridicule you, that says more about them than you anyway. Just be sure to smile, wave, head nod, greet, or what ever you choose to do as you fly by them on the ride.

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