Planing is a term from water sports that Jan Heine and Mark Vande Kampe have applied to the riding characteristics of road bicycles. It refers to a smooth, efficient matching of the cyclist’s rhythms and the dynamic properties of the bicycle itself. When bicycles plane, they seem to move with the cyclist with such harmony that speed and endurance are increased to a significant degree. A synonym might be the word soar.
I remember times when I seemed to plane, going back at least thirty-five years and recurring now and then ever since. The most recent episodes were during the 2010 Grand Canyon Ride with PACTour. On most days of this 1,100 mile trip, I had to push in order to stay in touch with the slow contingent that trailed along toward the end of the pack.
On three or four afternoons, however, something happened: harmonic unity and energy appeared. I found a pedaling cadence (probably around 90 revolutions per minute) that felt exactly right and which I could maintain with occasional gear changes according to the undulations of the course. Despite having cycled for several hours, I could stay in this mode for an extended time during which I gradually moved past other cyclists who ordinarily rode faster than I did. My body and my bicycle seemed to blend into one smooth movement forward.
On this trip, I was riding my Co-Motion road bike, with short wheel base and Woundup carbon fork. On other occasions, however, I was mounted on my forty-year old classic Mercian touring bike with steel fork. The sensation of harmonic unity and energy was much the same despite the different properties of the bicycles.
Jan and Mark most often refer to planing when they are climbing steep grades. Some of their test bikes plane and some do not, at least not when they first ride them. My trouble is that climbing is when I most need the help that this harmonic efficiency produces, but that is when I am least likely to achieve it.
On this season’s first ride up Newberry Road to Skyline Boulevard in northwest Portland, I thought about the fact that neither of these bikes seems to plane when I take them on this two-mile stretch of road with its 8% and 9% grades. The reason, I’m guessing, is that planing can happen only when the rider produces enough power and maintains the rhythm that releases the harmonic interaction. Low gears are part of the answer, but my low gear on this most recent ride was a 26-27 combination and even with this I couldn’t maintain the cadence. Even if I keep a cadence, I suspect, there would not be enough stress on the bike to stimulate the sense of planing.
Planing or no planing, I will keep on climbing these challenging grades as they come along. After all, I do want to get to the top and down the other side. But after the road evens out a little, I will try to find that zone when everything comes together and I feel as though I can ride effortlessly for the rest of the day.
Note: Jan and Mark publish their test reports, technical studies, and opinions in “Bicycle Quarterly.” Links to this journal and many other related matters can be accessed at Jan’s blog. For my blogs on the Grand Canyon tour, check the archives for September 2010. The cyclist pictured above happened along just when I was taking a photo break half way up the steep part of Newberry Road. I don’t know if he was planing, but he was riding a lot faster than I.