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How to Avoid the Mistakes I Made Along the Way

By Audrey Knight

The author shares her hard-knocks intro--and conversion--to cycling on rollers.

You can't deny that winter is here. Actually, you can. You'll just be wrong. 

So, once you've adjusted to the idea that your days are shorter and it's not getting any warmer again for a long time, you can start thinking about winter training. If you want this to be the year to maintain your aerobic base while honing your cycling technique, then it's time to explore the exciting world of rollers. 

Which is exactly what I did for the first time this year.

My friend Seiji Ishii, who also happens to be a fancy-pants USA Cycling coach, had been telling me to hop on a set of rollers since I first met him. Apparently, my pigeon-toed-on-the-right-leg, bow-legged-on-the-left technique was not as cool as I thought. So he said something to the effect of: "rollers are good…blah, blah, blah, blah, blah…you pedal in squares…blah, blah, blah, blah, blah." I finally took his advice to heart and just as I was about to break down and buy some rollers of my own, the stars aligned, and two individuals whom I believed at the time to be my friends "kindly" offered to let me use their rollers. Little did I know what lie in store. 

For the uninitiated, rollers are essentially the cycling world's equivalent of a hamster wheel. They are similar to a trainer in that you ride them indoors, but different in that the bike is not fastened down (unless you are using a fork stand, which, in my story, you are not). Thus, you are required to balance the bike as it sits on top of the rollers. The rollers themselves are made up of three aluminum drums fastened into a frame that sits on the floor. Your front wheel sits on top of the first drum, and your back wheel is sandwiched between the second and third drums. The first and second drums are connected by a large, flexible band, which is what prevents you from traveling forward (see below). Some models come with optional attachments like fork stands and wind or resistance generators. Basically, though, your bike is upright and rolling just like it would on the road, with the slight variation that you don't actually go anywhere. 

Throughout my cycling habit, the people who had described rollers riding to me tended to use words like: "hard," "takes practice," and "requires a lot of balance." I have one friend who actually insists on wearing his helmet when he rides the rollers. I scoffed, preferring instead to think of myself as more of the Urban-Cowboy, "show up and immediately outride all the locals and ex-cons" type of renegade. And, with all the brazen insolence of youth, I thought, "I have been riding a bike for five whole years. How hard could it be?" 

Answer: very. So, in the interest of helping those of you who might be jumping on the rollers for the first time, and amusing those of you who are more coordinated than I am, I've put together the following list of tips. 

#1. Allot a LOT of Setup Time 

One of the primary advantages to indoor cycling is that you can do it any time-for whatever time increment you may have. You know how it goes with road riding: by the time you put on all your gear, get your bike set up, meet your friends, and get out of traffic so that you can start riding, you've already eaten up an hour. But what if you only have an hour? And what if it's dark and rainy outside? That's right! Indoor cycling to the rescue. 

Just be careful to take into account how long you will have to spend getting your rollers and bike set up. This time will vary according to a) whether you were born with the Mechanics Gene (I was not) and b) whether you have an instruction manual (I do not). For my first roller rides I probably spent about as much time on setup as I did on the workout. Perhaps this is because I had to call in the help of a patient and understanding customer service rep at Kreitler for such obvious things as: you can't use the headwind attachment and the fork stand at the same time. Perhaps you will have your rollers set up properly in no time. Just plan for extra time, and if you finish ahead of schedule, go treat yourself to a beer.

#2. Don't fear the Rollers-too much

Simply put, being afraid of the rollers will lead to trade-offs in your mechanics that outweigh any potential benefits. Your pedal stroke will be jerky; your muscles will contract in strange ways to counteract your jerky pedal stroke; and you'll get so frustrated that you'll get off the bike after about ten minutes. 

You must ease yourself into roller riding by using the tried and true doorway method, in which you place your rollers inside a doorway so that you can fall to the left or right without falling all the way off the bike. Just make sure the doorway is a small one, ideally one where the floor is level. Start off in a very easy gear, don't look down at the front drum, and relax. 

But, no matter how relaxed you get, never forget who's boss (hint: it's not you). 

#3. You probably won't ride off, but you can fall off

Scientists will tell you that without physically moving your tires off the aluminum drums of the rollers, you won't travel forward. That's the whole point of the rollers, after all. The band that stretches between the front drum and the rear drum is there just so you don't go forward.

That doesn't mean you can't. If you choose to pop your front tire off the drum, for instance, you will then travel forward. And unless you are keen on running over your rollers and traveling about your house on your cycle, I would advise against this and similar stunts.

Also, this doesn't mean that there aren't other trajectories that you, your bike, and your body may follow. 
On my most recent rollers ride, I was tired of getting on the bike in the standard manner, or what I assume to be the standard manner: you stand over the bike, which creates a rather uncomfortable situation in the vicinity of the pubic bone because the bike is sitting on top of the rollers several inches off the ground. You clip in on one side while bracing yourself in the doorway, clip in on the other side, beg the bike gods to let you stay on the bike, and finally, pedal. 

I decided I was tired of this cumbersome process. So I got cocky. Not a good idea - see tip # 2. I clipped in on the left side, braced myself in the doorway, and swung my right leg over the bike. For the science types in the audience, here's how I break down what happened next: weight distributed over bike, good; weight all on left side of bike, bad.

While I was sprawled on the floor, I spent a while thinking. And I realized that it's hard to say which is worse when it comes to taking a spill on the rollers: being alone in the house and having no one to help you if something really goes wrong, or having to explain to another person why you are sideways on the floor with your legs splayed over the rollers and a bike hanging off your shoes. In this case, I was alone and had to suffer only the embarrassment of explaining to my work colleagues how I got the bruise up and down my forearm from riding a bike. 

In my house. 

#4. Feeling deflated? Good!

There are two schools of thought on the issue of deflating your tires before you ride: one that believes you might mess up your wheels and that deflation is therefore a bad idea, and one that believes deflation is the best shortcut to balance.

I split the difference. Given that plenty of bike wheels survived on PSI considerably lower than the PSIs that today's bike tubes can handle, I think it is possible to deflate your tires to somewhere in the 80-90 PSI range without doing violence to your rims. An added benefit of slightly deflated tires is increased resistance. So consider letting at least a little air out before your maiden voyage.

#5. Don't give up.

What the experts will tell you: "Riding rollers is an excellent way to smooth out your pedal stroke, gain balance on the bike, and stay fit in all weather conditions." What they ought to tell you: "Riding rollers is going to make you feel like a drunken hippopotamus on a tightrope, and if you're not comfortable with the idea of being outwitted by a bunch of metal, you may want to find a new hobby."

Still, no matter how humiliating it may be, don't give up. You will prevail, eventually. With emphasis on the "eventual" part. But once it happens, you will be a better cyclist for it. And if nothing else, take comfort in the fact that aren't going to be as dumb about everything as I was.

You have been warned. Now, go forth and roll.

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