It’s cold out there! If you’re a climate or daylight challenged multisport athlete you may need indoor bike training to maintain hard-earned fitness gains or build a base for next season. I’ve got a new challenge for you: Learn to ride on rollers. They’ll help you develop a better sense of balance as well as a smooth spin that you just can’t get on a stationary trainer. After a winter with substantial training time on rollers, I guarantee you’ll be more confident and efficient on the road come spring.
In case you’ve never seen rollers, I’ll explain what they’re like. On rollers you ride your own bike with both wheels spinning just like you would on the road, except of course you’re not going anywhere. Rollers have three plastic or metal drums that are about a foot-and-a-half wide and about 4 to 8 inches in diameter spinning on ball bearings. There are two drums in the back that your rear wheel centers between, and a rubber belt that runs from the rear to a single front roller. The rubber cable drives the front roller and that’s what allows you to steer and balance. The axles that the rollers spin on are held in place with metal rails that allow fore-and-aft adjustment for front roller’s spacing to accommodate your bike’s unique wheelbase dimension.
You can set-up rollers almost anywhere, and some fold for storage and travel. Choosing a specific location to set them up is dependent on noise considerations (yes, they are noisy), and your preference of entertainment distractions (TV, TV/VCR, Stereo, etc.). Be advised that if you ride them on the second floor everyone below will “serenaded” by your workout. Putting them on a rug or some sort of padding helps dull the noise somewhat, but not completely.
You’ll need something at about waist height to hold on to or lean against each time you get started. A railing is ideal, a wall is good, and some riders favor a doorway for a brace on both sides. For the first ride, (and several subsequent rides unless you’re an ace) you’ll want a spotter to brace against just in case you begin to loose it — nearly everyone does at least once! This is where the spotter can help. Aside from encouragement, a spotter (of sufficient size) can push you back to the center or even “catch” you before you come off the side.
I’ve seen a few athletes who could balance by themselves after only 5 minutes, but this is very rare. The average rider doesn’t get to balance unassisted until the second, and sometimes third ride. You’ll notice riding the rollers takes total concentration at first. This is because there’s less self-steering effect since your tire is on a curved surface(the drum) rather than flat like a the pavement. On the road the tire’s contact patch is longer than it is wide, giving it some directional stability. On the rollers your tire’s contact patch is essentially round, ready to turn with little resistance.
Make sure your tires are up to full pressure before getting on as this will reduce rolling resistance and tire wear. Check to see that the front drum is exactly underneath your front wheel’s axle or up to 1.5 inches ahead of it. Take note: Never ride rollers with your bike’s front axle ahead of the front roller’s axle, or more than 2 inches behind. Take time to adjust the position of the front roller as necessary.
Next, figure out a safe way to get on and off. This can be a challenge since your bike is several inches elevated off the floor. Cleated shoes can be very slippery on wood floors. Put your bike in a medium size gear before you get on and set the rollers for minimum resistance (assuming they have resistance adjustment). Changing gears during the first ride is usually not an option, and too small of a gear limits your wheels’ self-steering centrifical force that will help you balance.
Once you’re on the bike pedal easily at first as you brace yourself against the wall or whatever’s available. You’ll have to hold the bars steady with one hand until you can go “solo,” unless you have a spotter to hold you up. Get your cadence up to normal speed while keeping your front wheel centered on the roller, become progressively steadier — less dependent on the wall or your spotter.
I usually ride the rollers for 30 to 45 minutes at the most; save longer indoor rides for stationary trainers, if you must train longer than that. You can do any type of workout on rollers that you would on the stationary trainer or spin bike; I usually do some sort of interval set to break up the boredom. For example: Ride 1-minute on/1 minute-off after a 10 to 15 minute warm-up, getting cadence up to 95-110rpms on the interval. I also like a buildup set where you do 5-minute blocks at a certain heart rate, then increase the gear and/or resistance every 5 minutes until I’m at about 80% of max heart rate for the last 5 minutes. Also, try challenging yourself to do short interval spin sets (1-minute or less with long recoveries) attempting to hold a high cadence without bouncing on the saddle to perfect your pedaling form.
Without a doubt, training on rollers is more of a traditional bike racer skill than triathlete skill, and not easy to learn for many riders. But, the effort is worth it as you’ll be able to ride along a three inch wide painted line on the road easily next season. If you do a substantial amount of riding indoors, and previously only rode a stationary trainer, try mixing it up with rollers on alternate indoor cycling days for variety and get an edge in technique over the competition.