Rollers put you in the fast lane to better technique, bike handling

Riding the rollers  Credit: Photo courtesy Graber Products, Inc.
It's been about 25 years since I learned how to ride a bike, but learning how to ride rollers brought me back to my first experience on two wheels.

I've been an avid cyclist my whole adult life, I've even competed in road races, but until recently I've never trained on rollers.

Rollers are a simple tool used by professional and amateur cyclists. Unlike stationary trainers in which the bike is immobile, on rollers the cyclist must balance the bicycle while pedaling. The slightest imbalance can make the bike veer, causing it and rider to fall.

Rollers, which range from $175 to $500, can be purchased from bicycling catalogs like Colorado Cyclist and Performance or a bike specialty shop. If the local shop does not have them in stock, most can order them from the manufacturer. A resistance unit can add to the cost, although some manufactures include them in the price.

So one Saturday morning, I decided to try out my catalog-ordered rollers. By coincidence, the classic cycling movie Breaking Away, about a Midwestern kid who tries to reinvent himself as an Italian cyclist, accent and all, was on TV.

To my surprise, the unit required very little assembly. I had to adjust the front roller so the front wheel of the bike was centered on it. This required removing one bolt. The rollers consist of three cylinders, which are contact points for the bicycle wheels, attached by two rods at each end.

The rear wheel rests on two cylinders. The front wheel rests on the third. A band attached to one of the rear cylinders turns the front wheel as you pedal.

The rollers, in their framework, are raised about 2 inches off the floor, so they can turn unobstructed. So in order to reproduce a true feel of the road, the rollers need a fluid or magnetic resistance attachment. Resistance increases as a rider's pedal cadence increases.

Stationary trainers are a valuable way to get in shape for the cycling season. But rollers, without anything to hold the bike upright except for the rider's pedal action, test balance and form as much as cardiovascular fitness.

My first experience with rollers was, from what I hear, pretty typical. Following the instructions, I placed the bike on the rollers in the middle of an archway. I braced myself as I mounted the bike and managed to get on only after I depressed one of the brakes to keep the bike from rolling off.

The next few minutes were a white-knuckle experience. Feverishly gripping the archway molding with one hand and the handlebars with the other, I pedaled and squeezed the brakes alternately.

Every pedal stroke and slight body or handlebar movement sent the bike gliding left or right depending which way the force was coming from. I was pushing too hard on each downward stroke. I tried to apply less pressure with each downward stroke and balance the force with each opposing upward stroke.

I was also trying to keep the handlebars straight and my eyes looking straight ahead. I had an overwhelming desire to look down, which only made my balance worse.

My goal was to keep my upper body still while my legs acted as pistons. The faster I pedaled, the easier it was to keep the bike centered. My new toy was teaching better form and pedal cadence. But soon I needed a break.

The next try, I was ready to let go of the wall. It was touch and go for a while. Let go, grab. Let go, grab. Finally, I let go and grabbed the handlebars.

The handlebars wobbled, the bike glided from side to side, but I was riding wall-free. I was doing about 25 mph in my living room, breaking quite a sweat. Not bad for a guy who just learned how to ride a bike ... on rollers.

Roller-riding tips

  • Ride in a garage or well-ventilated room.
  • Have lots of water on hand.
  • Keep a towel or sweat guard on the stem and handlebars. Over time, sweat corrodes metal and can ruin your bike. Sweat guards that protect handlebars, stem, and top tube are available for purchase.
  • If you live in an apartment, be considerate. Rollers make a considerable amount of noise.
  • Don't worry about pushing a big gear. Keep your pedal cadence at about 90 rpm. Spinning is much more effective than brute strength.

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