How is that fat guy riding my legs off?

August 20, 2007

The NYT had an article a month ago on the fact that in bike-speak “Fit” is not always equal to “Thin”, a fact which apparently confounds Wake-Forest “exercise physiologist” Michael Berry

But, Dr. Berry added, “I quickly learned that when I was riding with someone with a 36-inch waist, I could be looking at the back of their waist when they rode away from me.”

I gotta say runners crack me up. They have a pretty hard time getting cycling, mostly because it seems like a series of “cheats” compared to what they are used to. So when they blow out their knees, grind out their hips, get heel spurs, bang their big toes or whatever, they are forced to the OneTruePath of cycling for health reasons. This leads to much hilarity. To be fair though, I’ll point to two examples of cyclists-come-lately who didn’t have a running background to expand a bit on the NYT article.

First, check out the middle two pictures in the linked article, dude, this could be before/after on Bikemonkey! (Well, those legs are a little spindly for a real cyclist but focus on the equatorial regions if you will.) Suffice it to say I’m a good 40 pounds over racing weight. Most casual friends like spousal co-workers and neighbors kinda “heard” that I “used to ride” but see pretty much the “after” picture. And there is no doubt that my current job is pretty much limited to sitting in front of a computer writing papers and grants and running a lab.

Poor suckah number one was the guy who took up mountain biking to drop some weight in maybe his early thirties. He was a pretty obsessive type and was successful in dropping some weight, getting pretty good on the MTB and finally talked me into a ride. Of course we get back from the first ride and his mouth is pretty much on the ground, not from exertion but because he can’t believe this out of shape guy was putting the hurt on him like this. I am *not* braggin’ here, I peaked out as a sort-of competitive Sport MTB racer which is no great shakes. The point, however, is partially the one raised by the great Andy Hampsten in the NYT article that efficiency means a LOT in cycling. You have to learn to put down the power on a bike in an efficient manner, using as much of the non-physiologically-correct pedal circle as possible with as many muscle groups as possible. To achieve the most efficient pedaling cadence (crank rpm). Some people are going to be better than others, of course, but there is a massive training effect. Apparently this is one of the things that leaves you last and I can still pedal circles, good on me. Efficiency demands are trebled or quadrupled when you are talking off-road riding. Where to start? Everything requires efficiency because the more time you spend slowing down/speeding up because you don’t have the technical skill burns energy. Ditto bouncing up and down because you can’t read terrain. Etc. No, this guy’s full-suspendy bike didn’t help that much.

Second poor suckah was the neighbor, maybe 5-8 years older than me but rail thin, works for a living (i.e., ironworker; more on my formative years with similar working but real bike guys later) and came to cycling recently to keep fit with the rec-triath-wife. I think this episode was in the middle of one of my little motivational bursts where I actually dust off a bike and go for a ride or two. So we go for a nice little jaunt and he’s just killing me on the hills, up Mt. Soledad (the easy way, more on the infamous Via Capri in later posts no doubt) and up onto Torrey Pines Mesa (home of much bioscience for the nerds out there). Then we get up on the flats and crank out to the top of Torrey Pines (the park and popular intervals hill) and come back. The guy’s been killing me on the hills so, ok, I get out front in the big and cruise it a bit. After a while the guy’s dying and I’m getting the “How is this fat guy killing me?” look again. This is one of the points that runners miss, the NYT article overlooked and has a geeky component. Uphill riding is (mostly) about power to weight ratio which we’ve heard all about in Lance’s TdF conquests of the past decade or so. The NYT article talks about heavy people descending fast but this only brushes on the real point. Until the road is really going up, cycling is about power to frontal area because the cost of cutting through the air is so high. Naturally, the relationships of weight-to-power and frontal-area-to-power in cyclists are not directly related. It is no accident that real time trialists look like BigMig and Jan Ulrich (Ob: MDMA!) and guys like Pantani and Sastre have to “limit their losses”; in the TT it is all about raw power output. And fat guys who put on a big belly are probably actually improving their aerodynamics! Anyhoo, NYT missed this and it leads us to our next topic which mystifies me a bit, physiologically.


Another problem for cyclists-come-lately is that it seems to take something like 3 years of serious riding for a cyclist to start to asymptote. Now, this is complete seat-of-pants anecdote but comes from watching people “get serious about cycling” over the years. I’m sure the timecourse is modified by actual training regimen, some of this is tied up with development and there are exceptions. Whatever. There is, however, I think some thing physiological going on with leg musculature and the ability to really crank out the power on a bike. It doesn’t transfer for really fit/dedicated runners. I think the long timeline (years, not months) is really confusing to people who come from other sports, they just don’t think that it might be a 3 year process. So when after a summer of “getting serious about cycling” the fat, old, out-o-shape guy is still waxing them, well, I start getting that “look” again 🙂

One Response to “How is that fat guy riding my legs off?”

  1. […] to the stylin', profilin', bicycle riding, fig-flying, election stealing, wheelin' and dealin' son of a gun I want thank […]


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