In Search Of Drivetrain Feel: Finding it on my Bike

A few weeks back I had an epiphany. During a damn good trip out on my friend’s yacht, I suddenly found myself overdosing on all the sensation that I had been missing out on in virtually all of the modern cars I’ve driven in recent years. Steering systems in cars today deny us of the feel, communication and sensitivity that was once abundant in even humble cars of the past. It’s an evolution thing- the information may not be there but we can be pretty sure the grip is, and the car will make the turn. The tiller of a sailing boat, though, is loaded with information thanks to physics. The feeling is so real you could eat it.
It was after this tactile reawakening that I found myself thinking about other things a car does that we rarely feel, and one that struck me was that we’re hardly ever aware of how much effort the engine is putting into those daily errands we dismiss as trivial. There’s one easy way to remind ourselves.
You gotta ride a bicycle.

Ever since somebody on TV pointed out that sitting at a desk all day is gonna kill me, I’ve recently taken to riding my bike again. I used to put loads of bicycle miles in, this abruptly ending the day I got my driving license. 18 years – or half my life later, I make sure to put in at least half an hour on two wheels during my lunch break, an hour if I can afford it, with a view to staying alive.
Of course, hard work and exercise are made easier when there’s a reward at the end of it, and on this basis my wife and I set off on a twenty-two mile round trip to a local beer festival. The ride gave me plenty of time to think, and more importantly, ample opportunity to feel.
Those of you who are athletic, Ironman types, regular cyclists or, frankly, merely less disgustingly out of shape than me will have to show leniency when I say this, but cycling is hard work. That, after all, is why I do it. Any day now it’ll become easy, but right now, while my body is still getting used to the mechanical demands made of it, I’m feeling every degree of exertion in vivid detail.
Join me in aligning myself with an engine. I’m a baby Fiat. Each of my legs is a piston, both combining to provide scant power and each turning a crank at 180 degree intervals. I don’t have a lot of power so every bit that I’ve got has to be wisely deployed. Typically, when I initially leap onto my Specialized Hardrock (I sometimes call it a Haddock thanks to the over-stylised typeface) and accelerate away to a decent cruising speed, often in an inappropriately high gear like 24th for much chain-stretching, chainset abuse, I am essentially transmitting a violent immediate release of all my power. My theory being that once I hit over 20mph I can back off to a relaxing cruise.
Sustaining 20mph seated on my bike is a little ambitious with its knobblies, MTB gearing and an absence of smooth enough road surface to make it a reality, but in still air 16-18mph is reasonable going. After a couple of hundred yards my knees have regained their strength and I’m ready to release power again where it’s needed.
It’s when trying to sustain a seated cruise on my bike that I realise how much effort my engine is putting in. On my way to the beer festival the air was either still or running a few knots in my favour, so I didn’t feel any particular resistance. The same wasn’t true of the road, though. My Cateye cycle computer is precise enough to confirm every baud of information my legs are receiving as the surface I’m traversing changes.
Every single subtle variance has the effect of increasing or decreasing the effort placed at the crank by my two pistons. I find that the coarser tarmac at the sides of the roads robs me of 0.2mph compared to the traffic-smoothed blacktop towards the centre line, so I constantly aim for any surface that looks to offer less resistance. It’s amazing how little extra road coarseness is required before you feel the extra resistance through the pedals.
Then, of course, there’s gradient. Just as how a precise hi-fi will expose and highlight imperfections in a badly played, recorded, produced or mastered piece of music, the wrong guy on a bike can turn a molehill into a mountain. Not wanting to resort to standing on my pedals and using full power for fear of exceeding my stamina, I’ll be on the gears at the first sniff of extra effort. And rapidly, as the incline builds, the gears will fall.
As I get used to the bike, I begin to re-learn the ranges. There are three blocks of eight gears, the top of which should allow a fit person plenty of variance for fast-ish touring, although too much time in eighth or 17th gear is ill-advised thanks to the extra wear and tear of cross-gearing. So for the these moderate increases in grade I can drop a ratio when I need, a quick click down on the index button is all it takes.
It’s tempting, if the peak of the hill is in sight, to ride it out. If you’re still losing momentum you have the choice of either dropping a cog and losing more speed but maintaining current levels of exertion, or staying in gear and putting in more effort. A fit, right-minded person would stand up and use a bit of additional power. I, lazy and thinking of the beer at journey’s end, remain seated… but stay in gear.
What I do know feels like the equivalent of labouring the engine. From a sitting position, without increasing the number of revs by dropping further through the gears, I’m using whatever torque I have left to propel the bike to the apogee of the hill, having recognised that it’s close enough to do so. Once it’s crested I can flick back up through the gears to regain the speed I’ve lost and return to my 18mph target cruise.
The resultant lactic acid build up in my legs can be felt  though it wanes very quickly- it’s the ‘feel the burn’ of so many misguided pep-talks. I could have avoided it by dropping down a cog or eight, but that might have meant slowing to walking pace, and a whole different kind of effort. I had laboured my engine, but normal operating speed was now resumed and I could deal with the next force that came to meet me.
Wind resistance. In my car I forget all about it. Wind is that stuff that causes annoying whistles from my Audi door seal when going over 130, and much hilarity when crossing high bridges. In a reasonably aerodynamic car with a decent amount of power, wind resistance has more impact on my monthly fuel bill than it does on my car’s ability to sustain high speeds. Of course, for an Audi to sustain 80mph is easy, but the fuel bill will go up if you’re doing it into a strong headwind.
The extra effort the Audi is expending to hold a cruise in a headwind is, proportionally, a fraction of what my little Fiat legs are having to put in to achieve the same result. Sustaining 18mph in still air on a flat surface proves doable, but when the wind turns against me the fight against this invisible air-treacle is most frustrating. 24th gear becomes a no-go-zone, 18mph becomes a distant dream. I start dropping gears, then begin to wonder whether 16th might be a better bet than 24th. I settle on 18th – though I am again slightly labouring my pistons – but I stay on the right side of 12mph. All because of a light breeze. When you’ve got barely any power, you really feel it.
We almost never suffer from a genuine lack of power in cars today, and when we do it’s often because we’re making impossible demands or plain ole driving it wrong. I remember Jeremy Clarkson once reviewing a Mitsubishi Evo FQ400 on Top Gear and complaining of turbo lag. He then tried to illustrate this by having two cars, the Evo and a Fiat Stilo Estate, both in sixth gear side-by-side at 30mph, and then kicking the throttle. The economy Stilo pulled away from the ferocious Evo but, of course, this was nothing to do with turbo lag at all and everything to do with Jeremy being in entirely the wrong gear to expect any acceleration at all.
People have this belief that power is everything, and it kind of is, really. But only if it’s deployed correctly. This was what I was to later be reminded on suddenly meeting a steep hill on my way home.
There’s a pretty steep descent through a challenging triple-apex left hander which then flips into a flat 90 degree right hander, then another left. After I accelerated with all my might on the flat to 28 mph before gravity caused my maximum RPM to be exceeded on the downhill, My Cateye indicated 36.8 mph. I held onto the bar-ends and crouched down to a vaguely aerodynamic posture and tried to jealously guard those mph, resistance immediately dropped the speed but I was able to keep pedalling at 26mph… until I hit the uphill.
What I should have done was get myself ready to get pedalling in a low gear for the ascent into my village, but I didn’t. I figured I could shift ‘on the fly’, but I had missed my chance. The feeling through my legs when the ascent began was like hitting a brick wall, and had potentially dangerous consequences for my chainset. I slammed down through my gears but was unable to catch one low enough in time. I stalled.
Game over. It was a stall, that was exactly what it was. Wrong gear for the revs – no acceleration. The only thing I could do was turn my bike around, pedal downhill a few feet to get into first gear, and then crank my way up the hill at walking pace. If I had managed to time things better I could probably have stood on the pedals and used my torque to get up the hill – labouring heavily- in fifth or sixth or, if I had preserved enough momentum, maybe ninth, but I had nothing. The hill seemed endless, and 2.8mph was all I could hope for at realistic leg-piston rpms.
I was a baby Fiat, and I now know far more of the pain a car goes through in order to supply the performance we take for granted.
As a side note, the beer festival was tremendous. I live in area steeped in maritime history, and the festival was set in the Harwich Redoubt, a Napoleonic fortification that once defended the approach to Felixstowe docks. I whole-heartedly recommend the Wibblers Summer Days at 5.9%.
(All images copyright Chris Haining / Hooniverse 2016)

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  1. kogashiwa Avatar

    “It never gets easier, you just go faster” – Greg Lemond

  2. Sjalabais Avatar

    Your story and comparisons make me miss riding my bike. I used to be in good shape, commuting by bike as much as 8000km/year. My most trustworthy bike is an old Bergamont Fluxus, a mid-range bike with a fantastic steel frame that has seen over 60000km, and that today retains nothing but its frame and fork as original. It came with the same Shimano gear set you have on your “Haddock”, but that’s been changed twice. I just replaced the wheels again and it is now in ship shape. Here’s a ten year old photo for lack of anything better:
    Anyway, for relevance: In april 2008 I tried to replace the bike with something called a Dynamic Crosstown 8. It was a bike with a cardan shaft, breaking the energy 90 degrees twice to a Nexus 8 shifter, a shifter with a good reputation. My reasoning was that I had to replace chains and cranks about once a year, it was costly and annoying. In rainy Bergen, this stuff would just get ugly and need a lot of maintenance attention.
    The huge problem with that system was that it felt like one was pedalling cake. Yes, your actions would have consequences, but they were soft, squishy, feedbackless. Having to bike up about 80 meters in height one way home from university, would put so much strain on the shaft, that the grease lubricating the 90 degree corners would be pressed out. It was a ridiculously inefficient bike that required a lot of maintenance on its own – a massive financial desaster for me.
    Next out was a conventional bikes with disk brakes (back then I replaced brake pads monthly). Even that tiny advance in bike tech wasn’t to my liking. The disks would get too hot and bluish quite fast in the mountains, and my then-girlfriend now wife even experienced a total fadeout once while we were racing up and down the mountains with about 30-40kg extra luggage on each bike.
    So the trustworthy Bergamont it is.
    Tl;dr – I relate.

    1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

      Wow. Having once briefly visited that fine city, I can confirm that cycling it must be rather more arduous than here in the rolling meadows of North East Essex.
      And re. bike technology, I yearn for something lighter, faster, simpler; and then realise that since my main reason for cycling is exercise, I may as well use a bike that’s as energy inefficient as possible.

      1. Sjalabais Avatar

        Hehe, I get the rhetorical point, but getting far fast under your own power is a fine discipline. Efficient bikes can be true eye-openers.
        I tried to find out if Dynamic Bicycles still exists, it doesn’t seem so. But I found my own rather obnoxious ramblings about the bikes many failures; it was worse than I remembered.

        1. Eric Rucker Avatar

          I’d like to ride something with a Gates Carbon Drive to see whether that’s any better – seems like it solves some of the bigger drawbacks of the shaft drive (two bevel gears that kill efficiency, lubrication demands, not really available), while maintaining a low-maintenance design.
          Of course, there’s part of me that really, really wants to see this come to fruition: (And, there have been people with e-bike-centric magazines that have ridden the prototype hub, it apparently really does work.)
          Yes, that’s basically a Prius transmission for a bicycle. It’ll mean less rider engagement (but, to be fair, a pedelec will mean that anyway), but possibly improved overall efficiency (and almost certainly better efficiency than a NuVinci CVP).
          Of course, my recumbent trike has a ridiculously convoluted, inefficient chainline that saps a lot of power, combined with a flexy boom that saps even more…

          1. Texlenin Avatar

            I,too,ride a ‘bent trike! (like that surprises anybody here) Which
            brand you smoke?

          2. Eric Rucker Avatar

            A 2011 TerraTrike Path 8-speed.

          3. Texlenin Avatar

            TT. Nice. I have an 04 KMX ST which weighs about 4000lbs

          4. Eric Rucker Avatar

            With all the stuff bolted to my TT, it’s about 3900 lbs, or so it feels when trying to climb any hills…

          5. Texlenin Avatar

            Le sigh. But who has 7-9k for a nice light Greenspeed?

          6. Eric Rucker Avatar

            If I’m paying $7-9k, I’m getting a velomobile – sure, doesn’t solve the weight problem, but the speed on the flats can smooth out the hills some…

          7. Texlenin Avatar

            Uh-uh. Tx driver’s would play pinball with my ass, even if I stayed only on sidewalks. Bad enough on the trike

          8. Eric Rucker Avatar

            The funny thing is, here in Ohio, I actually get a lot more respect from drivers on my trike, than on a bicycle. I think they have no idea what it is, and think it might be a weird wheelchair, or something.
            Also, the wide footprint helps motorists see how much lane I actually need – I get 3 feet almost every time.

          9. Texlenin Avatar

            Just crossing the street fills me with dread. It’s heavy and slow, and low- could probably drive under some “bro trucks” That’s why I added a large US flag to the top of the pole, plus the reflective one KMX sent

          10. Sjalabais Avatar

            I’ve never tried a trike, but they look at least very comfy. The lower riding position probably translates into less drag? Neither have I tried belt drive or even an e-bike, the latter is leading to a huge bike renaissance around here. The belt system looks promising as long as one manages to keep it clean.
            That Gemini though…send the link to a comrade who just finished building his second grossly overpowered e-bike.

          11. Eric Rucker Avatar

            The width and things like steering components in the airstream probably make drag worse despite the lower profile. And, the inefficient chainline of my trike (four idlers to route the thing) and flexy chassis eat up a lot of power. Combined with the high weight, efficiency is lower than a good touring bike or similar. Still, it’s damn comfortable, probably more efficient than something like an upright heavy Dutch bike, and handling is good.

    2. Dean Bigglesworth Avatar
      Dean Bigglesworth

      I never had fade issues with my disk brakes going downhill, though they were four piston self-adjusting hydraulics with 200mm+ sized disks on the front.. picture of the floating rear brake in my post above, or below, wherever it ends up.
      You might like Magura’s hydraulic rim brakes though. Had them on one bike and they were by far the best rim brakes i had. At least back then very popular on trials bikes where large disks wouldn’t have lasted five minutes before being bent and mechanical brakes were too wimpy.

      1. Sjalabais Avatar

        I’ve never invested in this sort of hardware. But, man, I didn’t know this is how it went for you and your back.

        1. Dean Bigglesworth Avatar
          Dean Bigglesworth

          Yeah, not ideal. The first half of being sixteen was spent finishing school and starting my first proper season in downhill with a competitive bike. But instead of starting studying what I had planned for years the other half was spent in hospital and rehab. I was still surprisingly positive during that time, but it’s been mostly downhill(hah!) since then. I don’t like to think about it too much. Sorry for the late reply, haven”t really felt like talking.

        2. Dean Bigglesworth Avatar
          Dean Bigglesworth

          Btw. not really related but Isle of Man TT footage is the only thing the has made me tear up in the last 14 years.. Well, at least the only thing i’ll admit to.

  3. longrooffan Avatar

    Another excellent write up Rusty. Is this perhaps Hooniverse’s new version of Two Wheel Tuesday?

  4. Maymar Avatar
    I ride a low-end city bike, with an internal 5-speed hub. I mostly commute to work (probably averaging once a week, about 16km round trip), and average about 17km/h (including stops though), I think 40km/h is my absolute flat-out. On one hand, I need to aspire to work harder for the sake of being healthier, but on the other, I’m mostly riding through a park and can only go so fast before I’m a menace to all the pedestrians.
    But yes, very nearly the last stint of my ride (on the way in) is a 1.5km bike path, which lines up with my driven route. Until I rode, I had no idea it wasn’t a flat surface (or at least hadn’t considered it). I mostly end up in first for most of the gentle slope, it’s just too long to maintain momentum.

  5. wunno sev Avatar
    wunno sev

    i used to ride a lot! then i moved to Texas. there is nowhere to which to ride here, just endless strip-mall hell. there is nothing to see. people “roll coal” from diesel trucks. these are excuses, but i never rode to feel the burn, only to enjoy the ride and go places. maybe i should take up mountain biking.

    1. outback_ute Avatar

      Same, then I moved away from the inner city.
      You might try a slick front tyre, I noticed the difference after a helpful person decided that having 2 wheels on my bike was too many – right in front of a police station! It was also the classic “only going to be a minute” so didn’t remove the front wheel to put it in the d-lock.

    2. Cool_Cadillac_Cat Avatar

      When I was a kid, I used to ride…a lot.
      Still have the 1983 Specialized Expedition bicycle I did my first century on, in 1983, when I was 14 years old.
      However, also being in Texas (Fort Worth to be exact), there ain’t no way I’m playing in traffic like I used to in Dallas.
      I should get that machine in rideable shape, again, though. Just ’cause.

      1. dead_elvis, inc. Avatar
        dead_elvis, inc.

        This sounds familiar. I’ve still got my 1984 Motobecane Grand Jubilé that was my first century ride in 1984, when I was 14.
        Similar contemporary reasons/excuses/sentiments.

    3. cap'n fast Avatar
      cap’n fast

      come to denver where all dike paths have an uphill gradient

      1. cap'n fast Avatar
        cap’n fast

        bike paths, and yes i did get thru second grade

  6. Dean Bigglesworth Avatar
    Dean Bigglesworth

    My last couple of years on a bike were mostly gravity assisted on an Orange 222, with the optional(and very much needed) floating rear brake caliper. It was very efficient going downhill, not so much on flat tarmac. Weighed 16.5kg, so pretty light all things considered.
    A month after the first picture was taken I rode it straight into a hospital. Well, not literally. My spine was smashed to bits so what I actually arrived in was a late eighties Chevy Van ambulance.

    1. dead_elvis, inc. Avatar
      dead_elvis, inc.

      Holy shit, man.
      Maybe I’ve missed it, but have you ever talked about this crash here before?

      1. Dean Bigglesworth Avatar
        Dean Bigglesworth

        I’ve mentioned breaking my back on a bike at least in passing, probably in a joking tone, but not really talked, no.. Not the best thing you do aged sixteen, breaking your back. Though if you’re going to break it then i guess doing it racing a bike is much better than drunkedly falling down a couple of decks on a cruise ship or jumping headfirst into a log floating just under the surface of the lake by your summer cottage.. or being hit by a car when you stop to extinguish a burning car. Or jumping a Stiga snow racer.
        And by first picture i meant last, because disqus flipped them around apparently..

  7. SlowJoeCrow Avatar

    If you really want to work hard, try the front seat of a tandem, and experience “twice the bike, twice the work”. On the other side, equipment does make a difference, I can go a lot faster on my cyclocross bike with slicks than I can on my mountain bike, just because the skinny tires roll better and the drop bars are more aerodynamic. We had a similar experience with a tandem, we borrowed an aluminum framed road tandem with high end components and were able to ride significantly than our old steel mtb style tandem.
    Lately I have been riding my mtb in its natural habitat but I do enjoy the almost flying feel of a roadbike on a smooth surface.