Every group of people has its own particular way of looking at the world, including its own logic and its own myths. This is true of cyclists as well. As I have been pointing out, bicyclists have a rich culture. Our culture -- along with all cultures -- has both myths and legends.
Legends, which I won't look at here, are stories about a real person which are supposed to be true but are not. We certainly have enough cyclists who have accomplished legendary feats, Cindy Whitehead winning a race after riding 50 miles without a seat, Lon Haldeman riding over 1,000 miles on a hamburger, Lance Armstrong surviving cancer and then dominating the Tour, Freddie Hoffman cycling over a million miles, and Heinz Stücke, who had visited 192 countries by bicycle as of 1996. But these are real events, even though they sound like legends. Perhaps they will become legends or will be considered legends in the future.
Myths are somewhat different. In ancient times, a myth was the story of a god or an immortal designed to explain some puzzling aspect of the world, for instance, why we have summer and winter. In our scientific age, we use "myth" to indicate a false logic, a misunderstanding of the facts, or an easily repudiated belief; the myths I describe here disguise themselves as logical explanations of how things are and also as a guide to what we should do, but in truth they are illogical misrepresentations of science. That is, the following myths are based on false beliefs that are easily proven by logical examination to be untrue. In talking about myths, I am sure to step on some toes, as one person's myth is another person's fact. However, the purpose here is not to offend but educate. Interestingly, some of the myths I have collected have their mirror opposites. In those cases, I will also point out which is the more popular of the two myths.
Although the Ontario Coalition for Better Bicycling has provided a long list of helmet myths, I do not consider every argument I can't agree with to be a myth. A person who believes that a helmet will save his life in an accident is not believing a myth, even though he may be wrong. Likewise, the person who believes that a helmet can increase the chance of rotational injury is not believing in a myth, even though he may also be wrong. A myth -- as I use the term -- is not an unproven point; instead it must be a point that is unprovable or that has no rational basis. Therefore, in my opinion there are just two helmet myths, one on each side of the argument.
The more common (major) helmet myth is that a helmet can prevent accidents. When I first saw statements of this nature, I assumed that the writers carelessly expressed themselves, meaning to say instead that a helmet can prevent injury; however, I have personally communicated with cyclists who truly believe that wearing a helmet helps to keep an accident from occurring. For this concept to be at all logical, it must have a cause and effect relationship, but I can discover none. Two have been suggested: 1) motorists will be more careful around a person wearing a helmet and 2) motorists will more easily see a person wearing a helmet. However, a safety vest would be a stronger reminder to be careful and would be much more visible, and yet these cyclists fail to see the need for safety vests. Personally, I find it hard to believe that a yellow helmet would be more visible than a yellow cap or that a motorist could spot the difference between the two.
The minor helmet myth is that a helmet increases the chance of an accident. Here again, a cause and effect relationship is missing. The best that has been advanced is that the helmet might block visibility somehow. That could be the case if cyclists had to wear motorcycling helmets, but it seems farfetched that a cycling helmet could block enough vision to make any difference.
Drinking Water Myths
The minor myth here is that a cyclist who consumes less water is faster ("drier is faster"). I don't know if anyone believes this any more. There is a trace of logic to it since the water would add weight. However, the effect of having insufficient water in the body would have a much greater effect on speed.
The major myth is that the cyclist must drink huge amounts of water every day, sometimes expressed as "eight quarts" or even "eight gallons." This myth has a medical origin, and it so happens that I have watched it develop from the beginning. Some years ago, a doctor was worried because everyone was drinking coffee, tea, and soft drinks instead of water. He felt that by not drinking clear fluids that we were overworking our kidneys. He suggested three glasses of water per day, one with each meal, and later doctors started recommending eight. Eight glasses of water is just two large water bottles full, and every cyclist drinks much more than that on a hot summer ride. The whole business of eight glasses is flaky anyway because 1) it is not based on any research and 2) the amount of fluid each person needs is determined by body weight, air temperature, diet, and activity. A cyclist needs to drink more water than most people anyway because we face a real problem of dehydration, which leads to fatigue and can be dangerous. But forcing oneself to drink large amounts of unnecessary water can be dangerous, even fatal. On several occasions, young women who had taken the drug Ecstasy became extremely thirsty and drank enough water to kill themselves from hyponatremia, a condition caused by a rapid dilution of the blood without additional sodium.
Since I wrote the above paragraph, Dr. Heinz Valtin has conducted an extensive search of medical literature (his article was published in the American Journal of Physiology) to determine the origin of the recommendation of eight glasses per day, and could find it nowhere. He did find one recommendation for one milliliter of water per calorie consumed, but the very next sentence said that that water would come mostly from solid foods. He also stated that the fluid could also come from soft drinks, as well as from water, and that being thirsty was not proof of dehydration. By the way, he used the word "myth" also. Audio source: NPR News Report
Another water myth is that you can tell if you are dehydrated by the color of your urine; if it is yellow or dark yellow, you are dehydrated, and if it is clear or light yellow, you are not. This myth has become quite prevalent; some people evidently believe that headaches and depression are caused by dehydration and monitor urine color constantly, and a company is thinking about selling test strips. Like most myths, this one has an element of truth, because one reason for urine becoming darker is that it has become more concentrated. But dark yellow urine does not necessarily mean that you are dehydrated, and clear urine does not mean that you are not. I first recognized this as a myth on the same morning I first read it, about 15 years ago. I got up to pee, and my urine was bright yellow. Was I dehydrated? Without getting anything to drink, I got back into bed with some soda crackers, and an hour or so later, I had to pee again. This time there was more urine, and it was clear, clear proof that other factors besides dehydration affect the color. One cause of urine being yellow is the accumulation of urochrome over time. The longer you go without urinating, the more urochrome. Foods you eat can make urine darker, as the color is affected by food colors and by vitamins, especially the B vitamins. Taking vitamins pills and medicines can darken it dramatically. On the other hand, taking a diuretic, drinking a soft drink which acts as a mild diuretic, or eating something salty, such as crackers or hot dogs, will flush water from the body and increase the amount of fluid in the urine, thus making you look less dehydrated when you have become more so. So, on that otherwise uneventful morning, my urine was bright yellow the first time because I had gone all night without urinating, and it was clear the second time because salt from the crackers was being washed out of my body. Even if urine color could be used accurately, it would not be useful on a bike trip, as the fatigue caused by dehydration would be apparent long before the need to pee. A cyclist must prevent dehydration rather than react to it. See my article on Ways of Being Tired for a discussion of dehydration and other causes of fatigue.
For some reason, many have decided that the most important reason to ride a bicycle is to move quickly. This is odd because a cyclist is slower than anything except a equestrian or pedestrian. Bicycling is so convinced that speed is important that every single issue for the last 20 years has contained an article explaining how to ride faster. However, on my trips around the country, I seldom encounter "fast recreational cyclists," and I commonly encounter cyclists moving at my pace, even with my heavy touring bags. Statistics indicate that less than 1% of all cyclists are involved in racing, and I doubt that more than 5% emphasize speed in their rides. When going into a bicycle shop, I usually can't even find a racing machine anymore. Therefore, I consider it to be a myth that cyclists are preoccupied with speed, although it is true that those who are interested in "fast" cycling are more likely to join clubs, buy the best bicycles, wear flashy clothes, and thus be more visible than the majority of cyclists.
One argument given to support fast recreational cycling is that it is good for the health. Well, that is true, but not because of the high speeds involved. But, I'll get back to this subject later on.
Those who are preoccupied with speed have a myth of their own. I have read their letters to cycling magazines complaining about the poor touring cyclists who can't possibly be having a good time because they're going too slow. Having met dozens of touring cyclists on the road, I can't remember a single one complaining about the slow speed of travel. We sometimes are dissatisfied with a headwind or the number of miles we make in a day or how steep the hills are, but those are other problems. There is no reason why 10 to 15 mph should be boring. The touring cyclist enjoys the view, and the slower paced trip just allows more time to look around. The fast cyclists attribute our slower speeds to our heavy bags and touring bikes, but they have a relatively minor effect. Our reduced speed is primarily due to high mileage, day after day. If fast recreational cyclists traveled 60 to 100 miles every day without a break, they would find their speeds much reduced also.
There is a myth that braking on a downhill curve will cause one to crash. One cycling magazine article instructed the cyclist not to use the brakes at all on a downhill descent. The same author suggested that if braking was necessary at all to be sure to brake before the turn. Actually, one can make the tight turns on a steep downhill much faster if one maintains very light pressure on both front and back brakes. This is equivalent to shifting down in a motor vehicle, but it is more sensitive. Don't take my word for it; go out and test for yourself. Not using any brakes at all also increases the risk of losing control and then, when finally reaching for the brakes, having to jam them on, which is much more likely to cause a crash on a steep downhill. Applying light pressure allows one to gradually increase the pressure without as much need for hard braking.
Another myth is that it is too dangerous to travel faster than 35 or 45 miles per hour downhill. Of course, under some conditions, these speeds are too fast, but when touring on good roads in the mountains, I reach speeds of 38 to 45 miles per hour every day and occasionally speeds over 50 mph, and they have never caused the slightest problem. What happens if a blowout occurs? I had a blowout on my front tire yesterday from hitting a sharp rock at approximately 35 mph on a steep hill, and I just braked to a stop and replaced the tube. I've had blowouts at higher speeds with the same result.
Myths about Tire Inflation Pressures
Years ago, recommended tire inflation pressures were much lower than they are now, 35-45 lbs. of pressure for a mountain bike, 70-75 lbs. for a touring bike, and 90-110 lbs. for a racing tire (these figures are from a cycling book published in 1973 -- mountain bikes didn't exist then, but their tires did). Actually, on my 1966 touring trip, my pump could manage only about 40 pounds, and I never tried to put much over 60 pounds into my gumwall tires. Now that high pressures are easy to achieve, most cyclists and bike shops routinely put far over 100 pounds of pressure into every tire, including mountain bike tires. I have been told that these very high pressures are necessary, but that is just a myth; such high pressures are undesirable.
There is just one advantage to the higher pressures: the bike is slightly faster on a very smooth road, but this advantage comes at a high cost. When the tire pressure is sky high, the advantage of a pneumatic tire in softening the ride is lost. This softening protects the rider from shock and protects the wheels from damage. Control should be better on a properly inflated tire as well. On a rough road section, a tire with lower pressure should be faster. A mountain bike tire will float over sand and soft soil better if inflated properly. If the purpose of the overinflation is speed, and the road surface is smooth, it would be better to go to a tire with a smaller cross-section, as it would also have less wind resistance and less weight.
There are a couple of amusing air pressure myths. One is that, somehow, riding on a bicycle reduces the frequency with which the tire needs to be pumped up. This is satired in my humor article on Tire Pressure. The second is that bicycle tires are likely to explode when carried in an airplane due to the drop in outside air pressure. I suppose the idea is that if the outside pressure drops in half, the pressure inside the tire must double. Actually, the difference in pressure at high altitudes is only about 10 pounds per square inch or so, and this is added to the ground level pressure. Thus, tires can explode only if filled to maximum pressure beforehand.
Myths about Leg Shaving
This is an issue I don't know about first hand but only through internet discussion. It seems that those who shave their legs feel that leg shaving enhances speed and helps with road rash. However, these benefits would be almost unmeasurable. Jobst Brandt and others have said that cyclists started shaving their legs simply because shaved legs look better, and this reason sounds much more logical.
Myths about Putting the Weight on the Front Wheel
The idea keeps going around that the best way to pack a touring bike is to place all of the weight low on the front wheel. I have tried riding with all of the weight on the front wheel and with all on the back wheel, and I must report that -- if the weight is small -- it doesn't make much difference. If the weight is great, steering will be adversely affected by weight in the front unless that weight is carefully positioned. Handling will be slower. At the other extreme, having all the weight or too much weight on the rear can cause the front wheel to lift up on a hill and is likely to encourage wobbling otherwise. The best solution when carrying a lot of gear is to place most of the weight in the rear, but a fair bit on the front to steady the front wheel. Why do I have this issue under myths? First, none of the people who recommend all of the weight should be on the front wheel actually travel that way, and second, it is impossible to do so unless motel touring because there's not enough room on the front tire (especially when equipped with a low-rider rack) to carry much equipment. As a matter of actual observation, I once saw two cyclists traveling together with small bags on their front wheels. In every other case, which amounts to hundreds of cases, when I saw cyclists traveling with small bags, the weight was on the rear. If there was any advantage to putting all of the weight on the front, more would be doing it.
The Terrible Saddle Problem Myth
As long as I have been riding a bicycle, non-cyclists and beginning cyclists have always believed that the narrow saddle used by cyclists must be extremely painful. One of the most frequent questions I had to answer was "How can you stand such a painful saddle?" As a result of new cyclists worrying about the seats, all sorts of wide, soft, and divided seats have been invented. Actually, the real problem is that the new or occasional cyclist hasn't built up strength in the legs or arms or is sitting in the wrong position.
As I explained to people 35 years ago, when I'm riding a bicycle with dropped handlebars, my weight is distributed between my hands, feet, and bottom. Because of the weight on the hands, the cyclist must wear gloves or use foam grips, and because of the weight on the feet, the cyclist can't wear soft-soled shoes. The bicycle seat is small and hard in order to prevent it from getting in the way of the legs, which are doing all the work and supporting most of the weight. Initially, when building up one's legs, the seat may seem too hard, but after the legs are strong, the smaller seat is a definite advantage. In fact, the only time when I had saddle troubles on a trip was when I used a gel-cell seat. After that, I went back to "the harder the better," and I haven't had trouble since. Of course, it is necessary to stand from time to time while cycling and to stop periodically to rest, especially when touring, as too many hours with your butt glued to your seat will cause problems.
The latest scare is that the bicycle seat can lead to sexual dysfunction, beginning with numbness and resulting in impotence. Playboy carried an article on the advantage of exercising on a bicycle, but 3/4ths of the information was about how to avoid becoming impotent, not a great inducement to cycling, considering where it was being published. This kind of scare is very hard to deal with, as testimonies from millions who have traveled all their lives on these seats without major problem are overshadowed by the account of one fear-monging newbie who has experienced numbness. Numbness, while scary at first, is harmless. I didn't have this experience until after I was 50, perhaps due to my age but more likely due to too few miles in the saddle before starting my long touring trip. This numbness occurred on several trips while climbing a hill before I had built up completely. My entire genital area would become numb, which was more alarming than I would have predicted. I suppose we all have a latent fear of impotence. On the last occasion when this occurred, I tried allowing the numbness to continue in order to see what would happen, and it caused absolutely no harmful effect (it didn't get worse either). The solution to this numbness is to stand up for a while during the climb or to get off and walk around a bit. It's caused by the blood supply to that area being pinched off, the same way a hand, arm, or leg can become numb. While feeling wierd, numbness is not an actual problem.
Recumbent bicycles may be a good solution for some people with unsolvable posture or sitting problems, but recumbent bicycles have seat problems of their own, including not allowing the option of standing up. Frankly, my seat and legs get the most tired on a long automobile trip. The seat problem, while real, has been so exaggerated that it must be classed under myths.
Myths about bicycle equipment are encouraged by the manufactures, who make a lot of money from them. These are some of the most stubborn myths as well.
The bike chain receives more attention than any other part of the bike. I read one magazine article that spend five pages on the loving care that must be devoted to the bike chain -- and then the author suggested throwing it away at 1,500 miles. The variety of chain preparations is endless. Yet, none of this gunk has any effect on speed or the life of the chain. A study at John Hopkins found that lubrication had no effect on chain efficiency, and I often go 1,500 miles without even bothering to spray some WD-40 on my chain -- and I never do much more than that -- yet my chains last up to 10,000 miles (those with expensive rear cogs should replace the chains sooner). As long as a chain is not dirty or rusty, it is OK.
The tread on the bottom of a tire can generate long debates. See I Don't Give a Continental. It can't be said that the manufacturers don't encourage the belief that one pattern or another is superior. I even received touring tires with little arrows indicating which way to put them on the wheels. But the tread pattern of a bike that rides on the pavement is meaningless. The tire behaves about the same when it's new and the tread is unworn as it does when it's old and the tread is about gone. Off-road tires probably need the tread, but the wide variety in available patterns indicate that no style has been proven better.
Bike brakes and pads are supposed to be greatly improved nowadays, but I have reasons to believe otherwise. I put some old Mafac Racer brakes on a bike I put together with junk parts, and they were able to lock the wheels, just as they did back in the early 70's.
Frame material has also fostered endless debate, and efforts were made to supplant steel frames with aluminum, titanium, and carbon fiber. But, steel bikes are everywhere, and bikes made of other materials have mostly disappeared. This was not hard to predict, as the performance advantages of the other materials were slight, and those bikes were more expensive to build. Only the Cannondale aluminum bikes seem to have won general acceptance. A common frame myth is that a high-quality steel frame will be worn out in a year or two of heavy riding, becoming very soft and flexible. Actually, a properly made, good quality chrome-moly frame will never wear out, although it may rust or suffer other damage that can cause it to fail.
Wheels are currently the focus of much experimentation, with 16 and 20-spoke wheels now popular. Evidently, the three and four-spoked and solid plastic wheels have joined the junk pile. I predict that these newer wheels will soon disappear in the same way. A properly made 36-spoke wheel is extremely strong and will last a lifetime. The slight extra drag from its spokes will be compensated by its greater durability and strength.
The same is true of many high-tech parts. The tiny amount of weight that they save cannot begin to pay for their expense and perhaps unreliability. If a rider wants to keep weight down, the easiest and cheapest way to reduce weight is by eating a diet with less meat in it. It would be almost impossible to reduce the weight of a bike by five pounds, but most people have much more than five pounds of unnecessary fat on them.
By the way, very few of the cyclists purchasing high-tech parts and bicycles are racers. If the goal of riding a bike is to lose weight and improve health, there's no advantage to an ultra-lightweight bike anyway. Those pounds shaved off of the weight of the bike will save no more than seconds off of the ride, and they will do absolutely nothing to improve fitness. Actually, if all other factors are the same, the heavier bike will produce a better workout. It's not even clear that the lightest bike will be the fastest. John Schubert, who has tested bicycles as the editor of various magazines for 22 years, told me that his fastest speed on his daily trip to work at Bicycling Magazine was on his Cannondale touring bike, equipped with fenders and light-weight wheels.
The bottom bracket myth seems to have disappeared. According to this myth, one risked considerable injury by riding on a bike with triple gearing because the one pedal would be slight further from the center of the bike than the other. However, this slight difference is found on doubles as well as triples, and most triples do not have a longer bottom bracket axle. There still seems to be a slight prejudice against triples, but the practice of spinning up a hill rather than standing and "walking" up the hill seems to be increasing, which will encourage wider gearing and triples.
Bicycling has published more articles about making sprints, attacking hills, and maintaining 85% of one's maximum heart rate than on any other subject. The coaches that train the Tour de France riders preach cycling at one's aerobic or anaerobic threshold, I forget which. Is this the way to become fit? Well, if the goal is to win the TdF, perhaps so. But if the goal is to improve one's health, this behavior is unhealthy. The way to build up your body and maintain your health is to just go out and ride on a daily basis. Miles, not attacks, are what is important. In fact, one great health advantage of riding a bike is that it gets you away from our high-stressed world, and making every trip into a maximum workout is a great way to stay stressed and to eventually drop out. This is not to say that it is wrong to have fun racing with friends or to build up your body, but don't make a grinding task out of it. While it has been proven that moderate exercise for long hours is very healthy, no evidence exists to show that short, intense exercise is better. Major Taylor, one of the most powerful cyclists who ever lived, but whose races were all very short, died of a heart attack at 53, a fate that probably could have been avoided by a long, daily, low-stress workout.
Myths about Cycling in Traffic
As with any other subject, advocates adopt extreme stances that cannot be supported by any proof. One common notion is that streets, highways, and roads are much too dangerous to bicycle on. At the beginning of the CPSC road study, the author states that 588,000 accidents occur every year (most of these are simple falls), an extremely high accident rate in his opinion. But his study also shows that 67 million cyclists rode 15 billion hours. Now how could he claim that cycling was dangerous from his data, when it indicates that just one in 114 cyclists was injured (and most of these were minor injuries) and one in 67,000 was killed? These figures are much better than the overall figures for motor vehicle deaths and injuries, and motor vehicle use has no health benefits. Also, using his figures for hours of cycling, there were more than 25,500 hours between injuries and 1.5 million hours between fatalities. I admit that these hour figures are also somewhat misleading, as the time indicated was the time spent on the activity of bicycling rather than actual riding time, but they are his figures, the figures he was supposed to be basing his remarks upon.
I hear all the time that bicycling is more dangerous than any other activity, yet this is nothing short of a lie, and looking at any set of accident statistics will quickly confirm otherwise. For instance, after I commented to my librarian recently about an outrageous statement about the risk of cycling made in a book that I happened to pick up, I commented that walking up stairs was more dangerous than riding a bicycle. Since she didn't believe me, I looked up the figures in the Almanac and showed them to her -- over 17,000 killed in '99 from falls, most of which occur on ordinary stars. How many hours do people spend walking up stairs every year?
A very pernicious myth is that if you ride in traffic, the motorist will run into you from behind. There are a number of collisions of this type, but they happen mainly at night with cyclists who have no lights on their bikes. To avoid being struck from behind, some cyclists ride the wrong way or on sidewalks, dangerous behaviors because the motorist doesn't see them when turning. Cyclist who ride in the roadway and obey the traffic laws are more visible and much safer.
At the other extreme, some are maintaining that all one has to do is to obey the traffic laws and maintain the proper lane position to be safe. While this is usually true, it is much more logical to watch nearby vehicles as well. Careful motorists and motorcyclists die every day, so a little extra caution, especially during times of poor visibility, at intersections, or when the motorist is acting strangely, makes a lot of sense.
The Bike Light Myth
A very common myth is that the purpose of a light on a bicycle is to help the cyclist see better. Even manufacturers of the lights believe this myth, as they design lights with a narrow, bright beam, not visible from the side. When cyclists realize that they don't need these lights at night, due to street lights, scattered light, moonlight, or even starlight, they ride without them, and as a result, many get killed. The real purpose of a light on a bike at night is to be seen. Motorists aren't thinking about cyclists at night, and their eyes are blinded by glare and by looking into the headlights of other cars. While the cyclist can see everything, the motorists can't see the cyclist. To ride safely at night, be sure to have lights and reflectors on the front and rear of your bike that are visible from the sides as well, and pay careful attention to any motorists near you who may be drinking, drowsy, or inattentive.
Cyclists get honked at and yelled at from time to time, and passengers sometimes throw bottles or cups of ice at them. Cyclists also find, in many states, that not the slightest effort has been made for their safety, such as marking the place where they need to stop in order to trip the traffic light. Then, when they get into conversations with motorists who know nothing about cycling, they really feel misunderstood. These feeling can lead to the belief that the world is conspiring against them.
One conspiracy myth, which I happened to believe for a long time, was that roadways were deliberately being made dangerous for cycling and local governments were deliberately trying to keep cyclists ignorant or afraid of riding on the road. The truth is much more simple: the various state and local government agencies just aren't very aware of bicycling, and they don't understand it either. If they wanted to, they could easily spread propaganda or change laws to get cyclists off of the road, and they haven't done that. Instead, they have weakly tried to encourage cycling, because they generally agree with us that people need more exercise. It is true that they sometimes try to keep cyclists off of a few busy roadways, but this effort is also very weak and mainly due to worries or complaints. The biggest problem is lack of understanding.
Another conspiracy myth, taught by John Forester and accepted by many vehicular cyclists is that the anti-car people, environmentalists, the motoring lobby, and the government have conspired together to force cyclists onto bikeways. They see every bike lane and bikeway as a solid combined effort to get cyclists off of the road rather than as an effort to solve a local traffic problem and to encourage cycling. They often attack bike lanes and bikeways per se rather than for the safety problems they usually create. These attitudes and methods are self-defeating. The government is not a monolith, and environmentalists and anti-car people are not fellow conspirators with Detroit. The real problem, once again, is a lack of understanding of how cyclists can safely use the roads and how bike lanes and bikeways can create safety hazards. Rather than focusing on attack, vehicular cyclists need instead to focus on education. Over a period of time, the simple truth -- if repeated often enough -- will prevail.
Cycling myths are a curious collection. While most of these myths are harmless, some can cause problems, injuries, and even death. As new myths are always popping up from time to time, it's a good idea to have a sceptical attitude towards them. Most myths can readily be proven wrong just through careful observation.