It is sort of about the bike

by dhdaines

I’m certainly not the first to do it, but it’s become a bit of a hobby of mine to ride Bixi up the Voie Camilien-Houde1, the “only hill” in Montreal, which local sport cyclists are doomed, Sisyphus-like2, to climb hundreds or thousands of times a year for lack of any other nearby place to train…

Usually I do it at a pretty leisurely pace, in the first gear, which I find to be more than adequate for what is after all only a 6% average grade (a few sections are a bit steeper). I haven’t really managed to convince anyone else that this is a pleasant experience, but I find it to be one – the upright position on the Bixi encourages me to take in the view as I pass the Belvédère, which is really quite impressive, given that this is a 750-foot tall mountain in the middle of an essentially flat island not far above sea level.

I was interested to see what an all-out effort (as in, a sustained heart rate over 170 bpm) would get me in terms of a time, compared to the 6:00 minutes that I’ve gotten myself down to on my road bike, which is not particularly lightweight. In comparison, the Bixi:

  • Weighs 18kg (40lbs) versus 12kg (26lbs)
  • Has 47-559 (26×1.9) tires (actually not sure on the width) with thick tread, versus supple 28-622 (700x28c) tires
  • Has a cheap Shimano dynamo hub and lights that are always on, versus a light, efficient SP dynamo hub and switchable lights
  • Has 3-speed internal hub gearing, versus 14-speed derailleur gearing
  • Does not have clipless pedals, obviously, and doesn’t have toe clips or straps either
  • Has upright flat bars with no equivalent to the “on the hoods” position that works best for climbing out of the saddle

I found that the gears on the Bixi are not spaced very well for this kind of effort – I usually climb the first curve of CH standing, in the same gear that I will then use for the long shallow grade that follows it. However, in the Bixi’s 3rd gear, I found myself on the verge of stalling, unable to get much leverage to keep the bike going forward (the handlebar position probably contributed to this since I wasn’t able to use my upper body as effectively to push on the pedals).

My usual strategy is to downshift the front derailleur around the second “no parking” sign after the shallow straightaway, as this is where the climb starts to get steep again – I then climb seated in this gear until near the top, when I sprint, spinning it out and subsequently upshifting and standing up again.  This doesn’t work on a Bixi, of course.  I dropped to the second gear a bit before the sign and had to alternate between climbing standing and seated as it was again just a bit too high for the slope.  It may also be an issue with the handlebar position, as even when climbing seated, the upper body helps to counterbalance the force applied to the pedals (this is one of the ways in which cycling is very different from cross-country skiing, where the upper body is directly used to create forward motion during the glide phase!)

I was unfortunately working too hard to take in the view. Again, because of the handlebars, I was forced to lean forward quite a bit when climbing out of the saddle, so I mostly saw the road surface.  It also started to rain at this point.

As I rounded the last corner, I made a feeble effort to sprint to the finish line, not bothering to upshift. A refreshing wind cooled me off as I descended the other side sitting straight up on the Bixi.  After I arrived at work, Strava informed me that I had made a time of 7:39 on the hill. Given that this was from a cold start, as opposed to the usual “slingshot” coming down Boulevard Mont-Royal, I would guess that a fair comparison to my personal record would be more like 7:25.

In general, I like to believe that sports equipment is not very important. For example, since last season, I lost 10 pounds, which almost certainly contributed to me improving my best time on CH from 6:27 to 6:00, despite riding the same heavy bike.  However, my experience with a pair of slow skis on the Morin-Heights Loppet in February, where after powering past a bunch of people during the first (uphill) 10km, I was simply unable to keep up with anyone in the long downhill sections towards the finish, made me question this (and also immediately rush out to buy a pair of faster skis).

A Bixi is a pretty extreme case, but it’s clear that, strictly speaking, it is kind of about the bike. All of the handicaps mentioned above added up to a roughly 25% decrease in performance, and this is in a situation where wind resistance is not even in play. The more interesting question, which I can’t answer here, is the relative contribution of the various features of a Bixi, except for one: the weight difference between my road bike and a Bixi is only a bit more than my weight loss since last year, and yet the Bixi is still a whole minute slower than my best time on my road bike with those extra 10 pounds on my body!

What this points to is that a light bike feels nice, and it certainly will make you a bit faster, but there are many other things to consider: rolling resistance, internal drag from a cheap generator hub, and maybe most importantly, gearing, fit, and riding technique!

1. It is interesting that Camilien Houde’s opposition to conscription during WWII has led readers of English Wikipedia (myself included) to believe he was a bit of a fascist, while French Wikipedia points out that in actual fact he was the longtime political adversary of both the overt fascist Adrien Arcand and the quasi-fascist nationalist Maurice Duplessis (though he reconciled with the latter in his final term as mayor, at the height of the Grande Noirceur, the “darkest hour before the dawn” if you will, in the 50s).

2. Again with the Sisyphus. One might think that I only know one character from Greek mythology (and one would be correct).