Performance is Important for Slow Riders, too!

Performance is Important for Slow Riders, too!

Adapted from Natsuko’s article published in Bicycle Quarterly 58.

During the Fun Ride before the Otaki Mountain Bike Race, the other participants were surprised when they noticed that my bike is equipped with Shimano Dura-Ace derailleurs. But for me, the performance of my bike is very important.

That doesn’t mean that I want a racing bike, or even that I go fast. For cyclotouring, a cyclotouring bike is best. My first concern is comfort. I am not a fast rider, not a strong rider. My energy is very limited. My bicycle must help me. A bicycle must be a good tool, and that means high performance. But performance means many things, not just speed.

People think that racing bikes must be of good quality, because their riders want to win, or go faster. But high performance means losing less energy, and that is very important for cyclotourists, too. I want to save my energy—not to win, but to ride more comfortably.

I want to enjoy cyclotouring, so I like a bike that offers good performance. I don’t like being tired, and suffering on a bike is completely out of the question for me. Cyclotouring must be fun. So my bike should be light and comfortable and offer good performance. Then it’s a little easier.

My cyclotouring bike must push my back a little bit. It must encourage me and enjoy the ride with me. The tires must be smooth-rolling. The shifters must be easy to use. If something doesn’t work, it’s much stress, so the components must be of good quality. I need good brakes, because my hands and arms are not so strong. They must be easy to operate. That is also why I like downtube shift levers, because they are easier to move. I find STI almost impossible to use. Good bearings and a clean chain are important, because a bike that isn’t smooth adds stress to the ride for me. Perhaps gritty parts aren’t slower, but they make me enjoy the ride much less. Tires are especially important. I can feel that good tires roll much easier. Especially for a slow rider, it makes a big difference.

If you have narrow tires, and you get to a gravel road, you’ll probably turn around and head back. But what is the most important thing of cyclotouring? It’s being able to go where I want to go. So my bike should not limit me. This way, I can just go. It’s OK on gravel roads. Of course, it’s fine on smooth paved roads. I can go on almost any road that I want to go. My tires are wide enough, so my arms and hands don’t hurt.

If my bike doesn’t have good performance, I cannot go to the mountains. I don’t trust myself – I am not strong enough. But a good bike encourages me so much. If I feel “Today the pedaling is smooth” then it feels good to continue. Even if it’s 6 hours of riding.

I adjust my average speed based on the terrain planned for the day. I usually figure that I can climb 300-400 m per hour – of course, it depends on how steep the road is. Especially uphill, there is never a rush. A good bike will allow me to ride at the same speed even on days when my body isn’t in top shape. During uphills, I want to see the scenery. So the most important thing is that I don’t work too hard. 

A high-performance bike draws out the best performance in me. A lesser bike makes me feel tired. It keeps me from riding at my best. If I really enjoy cyclotouring, my heart may beat a bit faster, and I get a bit tired, but my head remains clear. That way, I can enjoy the world.

On the downhills, my bike must be reliable and handle well. Otherwise, bad things will happen. If the tires are too narrow, then downhills are scary, because I don’t get feedback on the grip. On downhills, I must be able to trust my bike in every way. That way, I enjoy downhills. 

For a less-strong rider, downhills equalize the playing field, because pedaling doesn’t make you faster, but bike handling skills do. Descending is much fun. I am not good at sports. Whether it’s walking, cycling, hiking, I am not fast, but during descents on the bike, I enjoy the speed. It’s an unusual feeling for me. It’s very important.

A good bicycle will tell you how to descend. Just follow the bicycle. I used to snowboard, and it’s the same idea: Just look in the direction you want to go. Feel the gravity. Feel the road through the bicycle. It’s very easy for me to imagine: Relax. Brake before the curve. The most important thing is to follow my heart. The bicycle teaches me if it’s dangerous. If it feels scary, then it’s dangerous. Before a curve, I slow down to a speed that doesn’t feel scary, and then I just keep going.

When going over bumps in the road, just relax. My arms must work as suspension. My core holds up my body, but my arms must always be relaxed. And of course, I don’t sit too much on the saddle. It’s fun. I become one with the bicycle. It feels like a racing car, locked into the road. Choosing the best line is also fun for me, so I need a bike that handles well. Sometimes, I go a little faster and choose a wider line. When I am unsure about traffic coming the other way, I stay closer to the inside edge and go slower. I am not forceful, but I can choose my line. It’s fun.

It’s not easy to make a good bicycle. A cyclotouring bike is very sophisticated. The magic is invisible, but you feel it when you ride.

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