Who’s Stronger Now?

Today’s post on Lovely Bicycle! got me thinking again about rider strength and bicycle selection. I’ve been mulling this over a lot lately, as I find that our “couples” riding style is evolving in some very interesting ways. K is prodigiously strong as a cyclist. He was planning to race this mountain biking season, and would have done quite well. Then we moved, and here the season is already over. He’s also one of those generally athletic types. Ran track in high school, etc. I am not. I would like to be, but my DNA doesn’t lend itself to fast improvements. I think, after two years of cycling and various other fitness activities, I’m maybe a smidge above average. (Keeping in mind that the average American woman isn’t very fit at all.)

We bought our bikes in turns. When I bought my road bike, K had two mountain bikes. Until I was fairly comfortable on my road bike, he rode his mountain bike on our outings. Soon, even with my commuting-focused road bike and minimal skills, he was finding it challenging to keep up. Mountain bikes aren’t geared to go that fast–the priority is, at least usually, easier gears to facilitate climbing. Also, the logic goes, on a nice, technical trail, you don’t carry that much speed anyway. From what I dimly remember of those days, his fastest gear was only my mid-range. Even though he was a very fit, very strong cyclist, my pure mechanical advantage was winning.

So, before the year was out, he bought a new bike. But he couldn’t bring his mountain-biker’s heart to buy a dedicated road bike. Instead he bought a steel cyclocross bike. It has fast gearing, but a less-racy geometry. It’s heavy for a road bike and has wide, fairly knobby tires. I think the total weight is around 25 pounds, with racks but few other accessories. Still, he could run off and leave me if he wanted to. (He could also, and still can, ride through various “terrain features” that I had to walk. I resent this a little.) In other words, with our bikes fairly equal again, it showed that he was the much better rider.

When I bought my titanium bike, the whole field suddenly changed. It’s not the raciest bike, in terms of geometry, but it is certainly racier than Florence. Lower bottom bracket, shorter chain stays, significantly shorter wheel base. Last I checked, the total weight of the bike is around 17 pounds. I also lost the convenient indicators that tell me what gear I’m in. When I think to check, I’m finding that the same perceived exertion is, in fact, a significantly higher gear. The place this difference really shows is in the acceleration. Especially from a stop, or going up a hill, deciding to go faster seems to turn, immediately, into actually going a lot faster. And now, for the first time since the cyclocross bike, I can drop K if I want.

Keeping him back is, of course, a different fish entirely. His strength shows in his ability to always, without fail, pull me back in. When he gets ahead I still struggle to catch back up. One day, he’ll decide to upgrade his own road bike, and then the natural order will return. Maybe in the meantime I can get some more cycling fitness of my own.

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