Monday, January 13, 2014

Shorter Cranks: A Case (n=1!) For Older Cyclists & Triathletes


There is a bit of a buzz these days for going to shorter cranks (crank arms) for both triathletes and cyclists. It's not for everyone, and like many things there are some misconceptions and misunderstandings of what's going on.

If you are in a great position on your bike and are having no issues, then going to shorter cranks is most likely not going to be helpful for you: Shorter Cranks does not automatically equal better/faster! If you are suffering some specific issues, relating to to your bike fit and in particular, where an opening of the hip angle will be helpful, then going to shorter cranks may be beneficial to you.

I had always ridden on 175mm cranks on every bike (road & tri bikes) that I have ridden since getting into cycling via triathlon in the early 80's. I had never given this a great deal of thought, because every, "58cm" bike I had ever owned, came with 175mm cranks on it! However, a couple of years ago, when I had just turned 50, I noticed a few things when riding the road bike:

1. I was getting increased lower back pain when riding
2. I could no longer ride in the drops of my road bike for extended periods of time
3. I had lost a bit of my jump

A swapping of kit on one of my wife Paolina Allan's bike made a set of Shimano Dura Ace 170mm cranks available to me. I looked into this a bit, and came across the findings of the 2001 Jim Martin study in several articles online (this one on the Cervelo web site), that came to the conclusion - basically, power generation is the same for a rider, using a wide range of crank lengths. I also compared notes with friend and Pro triathlete Jordan Rapp, who had just gone to shorter cranks on his set up, and noticed no difference in performance.

I started to put this together with what I knew was happening with my body - as I aged, I was becoming less flexible, and I was becoming weaker and less fit. Hey, it's inevitable! Shortening the crank arms, making the appropriate changes in the fit elsewhere (raising the saddle and bars slightly, to compensate), would open up my hip angle, and also make the circles that I pedal in slightly smaller.

The great news about the new crank and bottom-brackets, is that with the right tools, these are very easy to make changes - so, out with the 175mm cranks and in with the 170mm ones. I did this in the winter, so that the first few rides would be on the trainer. Just to check everything out.

I did notice a slight difference when I first started to ride with the 170's. However, by the end of a 45 minute ride on the trainer, I could not really tell any difference. Some informal bench-mark testing on the trainer over the next couple of weeks, backed up the research and observations previously mentioned - I noticed no difference in my "performance". Another difference I noted was that, at a given level of effort, I might need to drop down one cog to maintain the pedal RPM that I preferred. For me, not a big deal as I have always been a bit of a "spinner" with a naturally higher pedal RPM.

The real test came in the spring when I was outdoors again and going for longer rides:

A) Lower back pain was much reduced on longer rides
B) I could now ride in the drops like a used to
C) My jump in big accelerations on group rides was much better.

Conclusions: If you are an older triathlete or cyclist, (45+), and you are not feeling comfortable on your bike, and you have some other issues such as I noted, and all other things being equal, you might want to look at your crank length and consider trying shorter cranks. Even shorter than "recommended", or what just came on your bike. Note - at 6'2" (188cm) generally speaking, my recommended crank arm length would be 175 and as noted, on every bike I owned, it came with 175's. For me going shorter helped.

Hope this helps.

Are you an older cyclist/triathlete? Have you tried shorter cranks?

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Thursday, January 9, 2014

PowerBar - An Early History



"Steve, I can't afford to buy an ad right now, but I can send you as many boxes of PowerBars as you like"!

And so began my relationship with PowerBar, and PowerBar founder Brian Maxwell. I was trying to sell Maxwell an ad in the magazine that I was working for at the time. We agreed on a volume of PowerBars that would be the "payment" for the ad, and Maxwell was good on his word, the shipment of PowerBars did show up, and I used them regularly for my training and racing for triathlons in the late 1980's.

It's hard to imagine these days, but PowerBar had humble beginnings. The products introduction also started up a whole new category of sports nutrition. Prior to PowerBar, "sports nutrition" for endurance athletes was water, Gatorade and bananas! Maxwell, a world class marathon runner, had struggled to finish a few marathons, due to what we now term, "bonking", or what in physiological terms is called hypoglycemia - what happens when you start to deplete, your bodies carbohydrate stores, that start to dwindle significantly beyond the 90 min to 2 hour mark, when working at a moderately high intensity. You can keep going, but you need to take in more carbohydrate to replenish those stores.

Maxwell had qualified for the ill-fated 1980 Canadian Olympic team. It was the pinnacle of his career as a distance runner. Unfortunately, he never made it to the Moscow Olympic Games due to the boycott. He took a job as the Track Coach at his Alma Mater, University of California, Berkley. Maxwell and his wife Jennifer Biddulph, a nutritionist started to think about and try and come up with solution to this issue of, what then was commonly referred to as, "hitting the wall" in a marathon or other long distance endurance sport, when the body starts to run low on carbohydrates and the blood sugar starts to drop. They started making and baking energy bars in their kitchen of their home in Berkley, CA. It took a while to come up with a formula and a composition that would be functional. Eventually they did. By 1986, and with $55,000 cash, they started PowerBar!

It was a tough go, as many business start-ups are, particularly because, as noted, it really was a whole new category. There were many skeptics. A key strategy, was to get as many athletes, to try the PowerBars  - thus, the using of the PowerBars themselves as currency to "pay" for advertising, marketing and sponsorship opportunities. They gave away, a lot of PowerBars in the early years, and really launched as well, the whole business of experiential marketing  - try-this-ounce-and-you-will-then-be-a-customer! PowerBar and Maxwell also pioneered the concept of, "photo contingency sponsorship" - they would sponsor athletes, and then pay that athlete, either in cash or early on, in more PowerBars(!), only when they would get photo logo exposure in magazines and other media!

 FYI - The PowerBar logo colors, that are used to this day, are the team colors for the UC Berkley Sports teams!

Early competitor, Gary Erikson, who founded Clif Bar in 1990, pays tribute to the hard-work and legacy that Brian Maxwell laid down in Erikson's excellent book "Raising The Bar".

The first real boom in the sport of triathlon occurred in the late 80's and it coincided with the early years of PowerBar. Long distance races, such as the Ironman triathlon, that for the top competitors take 8 hours to complete, require that competitors take in significant amounts of carbohydrates for them to keep going for that long. Many triathletes were early adopters and fans of the PowerBar product - that gave them 220 calories of carbohydrates in a neatly wrapped, easily transported and easily digested package.

Other endurance sports, such as cycling, soon caught on as well and the growth in the early 90's for PowerBar was impressive! In addition to Clif, a number other companies jumped into the sports nutrition business and by the end of the decade it had become a world-wide, $billion business!

In 2000 Brian Maxwell and his wife, sold PowerBar to world-wide food giant Nestle, for a reported, $375 million. Sadly and tragically, by then a father of six, Maxwell died of a massive heart-attack, in 2004 while out for a short run!

After my phone-call and ad deal with Brian Maxwell, I met him the following year at the annual Interbike trade-show. We talked about sports. We talked about our shared Canadian roots, and we talked about sports nutrition. Of course, ever the promoter and salesman, he would not let me out of the PowerBar booth without, putting another box of PowerBars in my hands!

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