Cycling for Slackers
by Tony Collins

Many people are put off cycling to work because they think that they are not fit enough. The images of cycling on television and in magazines are of young Lycra-clad things riding off cliffs or splashing through rivers in a way guaranteed to make anyone feel inadequate, but the fact is that anyone capable of a leisurely walk has the potential to cycle using a method which I will call Cycling for Slackers. The purpose of the "method" is to allow commuters or shoppers to make journeys of 2 to 5 miles wearing normal clothes without reducing themselves to a sweating trembling blob. While a few enlightened employers provide showers, supermarkets do not, and when you cycle the "Slacker's Way" a quick spray of deodorant before starting is all that is required to avoid shame in the checkout line.

The Bicycle
Don't be put off from using any bike which you already have; however if you live in a very hilly area I would advise you to acquire a hybrid or cross model with 18 to 21 gears. This type of bike has larger narrower wheels which will roll more easily than a mountain bike-remember, this method is about saving energy. If you already have a mountain bike, don't despair, because it is possible to have a pair of smoother narrow tyres fitted to save pedalling energy.

The First Ride
Easy does it. Don't get carried away and attempt a ride which is too ambitious. I would suggest 1 to 2 miles; have a drink in a cafe or at a friend's, then return. Avoid all hills, even if this means cheating by transporting the cycle to a suitable start point by car. Ride by yourself. If you are riding with a friend insist that they follow at a distance so that you can dictate the pace. Beware of cycling friends who are unable to resist the temptation to punish their riding companions. When you are easily able to complete rides like this you can gradually increase the distance and hilliness.

Saving Energy
Cycling Slackers have no wish to travel at speed. To double the speed at which you are travelling requires a fourfold increase in effort with a corresponding increase in body heat production. Any time advantage in reduced journey time is wiped out if your increased speed makes a shower necessary on arrival. Find the speed which you can maintain without unduly raising your pulse rate and avoid all temptations to race other cyclists (or buses!) which overtake you. As you approach your destination, start to slow; otherwise, your pulse will continue to be elevated for some time after you stop riding and you will start to heat up, without the benefit of the cooling airflow which you had when riding the bike. Definitely no final sprints into the car park to impress colleagues who are looking out of the window. A good check on your level of exertion is whether you can carry out a normal conversation or sing whilst riding. If your breathing is laboured you are trying too hard, EASE UP. It is worthwile fitting an electronic speedometer to your cycle to help you pace yourself. Try to maintain a steady speed as stopping and starting wastes energy. If you are approaching a red light adjust your pace so you drift to the front of the queue just as the lights change to green. Choose a route which allows you to keep your momentum, and when restarting from a stop, accelerate gently.

Hill climbing is potentially the quickest way of getting sweaty on a bike. With the aid of low gears, however, Slackers may sneer at hills. The technique goes like this:

  1. Never try to attack the bottom of a hill at full speed in the hope that your momentum will carry you up it.
  2. Approach at normal cruising speed, then coast to the start of the gradient, select a low gear, and don't start pedalling until the bike has slowed to the speed that you can comfortably maintain on the climb.
  3. If you start to feel the tell-tale signs--breathing getting heavy or pulse pounding--then ease up to try and recover.

It's a good idea to practise riding as slowly as possible uphill in a low gear so that this recovery can occur whilst making forward progress. However,try to ease up before you go into the red zone. When climbing a steep hill I find it helps to imagine that I am walking up a flight of steps. Each pedal stroke represents a step, and a gear ratio and pedalling speed are chosen so that legs are neither straining or spinning too fast.

Hills are also your friend: once you're at the top, the only way's down. Never waste energy pedalling down hill. Sit back, enjoy the free ride and the cooling breeze. This is your recovery time; pedalling down a hill just reduces the time your body has to rest before reaching the foot of the next hill. Any slight gradient can be used to good effect. If it's not steep enough just pedal up to cruising speed then coast. When speed starts to fall pedal again then coast and so on.

"Normal" everyday clothing is all you need, as you are not intending to cycle fast enough to work up a sweat and don't want to waste time changing at your destination. You may wish to make some slight changes; an open neckline allows heat to escape so leave your tie in a pocket, and if you have to wear a suit at work the jacket is best left there.Choose clothing according to season, to retain heat in winter or to lose excess body heat in summer. Clothing with a high proportion of synthetic fibres is best avoided unless specially designed to wick away perspiration. Wear several thin layers if you can so that you can discard or add a layer to stay comfortable. As mentioned before, heat production continues for a time after you have stopped riding so when you reach work take off your jacket or pullover, have a cool drink and fling open the window or turn on the fan.

Although the Slacker's Way is not intended to make you fitter, you will find that in time your range and cool cruising speed will increase. If you want to speed up this process you can do some more strenuous training rides on weekends, when you can get as hot and bothered as you like. It's not compulsory though and in any case your workmates will be fooled into thinking that you are super fit when you glide into work without a scarlet face and dripping brow by Cycling the Slacker's Way.

Tony Collins