Lately I’ve gotten a lot of questions about cycling. It must be the time of year, athletes looking to put new gadgets and toys on their list for Santa or other nondenominational nonholiday gift bringer. Or they’ve lost focus on anything work-related and turn to triathlon talk instead.
I looked to my husband for information because he’s a pretty fast guy and has been cycling competitively since college. If you’ve ever been to our basement, you also know that he has a bike problem. It’s not just a few bikes propped against the wall. There are entire roof racks installed on our floors with so many bikes that I have stopped asking the how, why or where.
Let’s turn to tonight’s conversation when another cycling-brand box appeared at our door.
What is that?
It’s a stem.
In that huge box there is one stem?
Well, it’s a stem that you can adjust to any degree to see which stem you really want for your bike, like if you want an 80 degree stem with a rise or a 90 degree stem.
My initial thought is why would anyone need this. But then again, that is my thought for about 99 percent of the tools and gadgets in our basement. Like the laser-level on a tripod. Or the sonic jewelry cleaner meant only for bike parts. Or how about the one time I found 18 stems on a table down there.
I consider him an authority on cycling. For no other reason than he reads about it incessantly, talks about it even when I stop listening and has serviced my bikes for years without leaving (and I’ve created some ridiculous bike problems over the years). So today I asked him to talk with me about the most important factors for getting faster in cycling.
Speed is sexy, isn’t it? Yet not many triathletes understand the science – and the art – of getting and going fast on the bike. Here’s a few tips to get your wheels going faster:
1) Get a proper fit on a bike. A lot of set ups are just "tweaks" by the user until they were comfortable. There is a moderate science behind a fit, like cleat adjustment, crank arm length, saddle position, and reach to the bars. Getting the user into a position that properly recruits the major leg muscles is important. Ideally, get the fit first. Then, choose a bike and components that matches your fit. A "good deal" on a bike one size too large is not really a smart deal and will only cost you later in pain, injury or components to try to make that bike fit you.
2) Select the right shoes. A decent pair or road shoes and pedals is far superior than the best MTB shoes and dual entry pedals. If there is one thing you don’t want to go cheap on it’s a good pair of cycling shoes. Cheap shoes can be terribly uncomfortable leading to pain or injury. The longer your race, the more important the shoe. Consider if you want a triathlon-specific shoe or a road cycling shoe. Road cycling is more adjustable and comfortable. Triathlon shoes make for speedier transitions but afford you less adjustability. And like your bike, the shoe needs to be fitted (cleat position is important for prevent injury and optimizing power).
3) Be sure the gearing is correct for you and the courses you plan to do. Do you live in the mountains and have a 55/42 paired with a 12/21 or live in the flats of Florida with a 32/50 paired with a 12/27? Consider the terrain of most of your races this season. If they are hilly – then how hilly? Will you need a compact crank? If it’s a flat course, are you willing to sacrifice speed for range in gears? Learn how to count your gears and what they mean. Then, ask your coach or local bike shop if you have the proper gears for your season.
4) Make sure the bike works properly and take care of it. Maintaining your bike is like maintaining your car. You would never drive a year without an oil change. Your bike should be serviced before the start of your training and prior to racing season. Check your cables, chain, tubes, spokes and bolts. For all the time and money you put into traveling to a race and training for it, it’s a waste to show up on race day with a bike that is 3 miles away from something malfunctioning (and could have been easily fixed in a routine tune-up).
5) Upgrade where it counts. A "cheap" aluminum frame with aero wheels is better than an expensive carbon frame with training wheels. An aero helmet gets more performance gain than a carbon water bottle cage. And remember, all the upgrades in the world will not replace the cheapest and most basic way to get faster: do the right training at the right time.
6) Learn proper nutrition, especially hydration. Cycling workouts are usually 1-hour at the minimum, extending up to 8 hours if you are training for Ironman. Even at the shortest distance, it's still an endurance event. The longer you can stay at optimum performance during a training session, the more effective that workout will be. Proper nutrition and hydration during a cycling workout are necessary for optimum performance.
7) Going fast on the bike really hurts. Running fast taxes your cardiovascular system. Swimming fast is about the swim stroke. Cycling is just pure burning in the legs and pushing past your normal threshold for pain and staying there. Once you can get over the idea of working in a lactic acid pool of pain is normal, that's where progress begins.
8) You can't learn to go fast without training fast. Your training should include some intensity throughout the year. Riding slow is like running slow – it keeps you slow. And, learn to utilize the conditions to become faster. Slogging into a headwind and coasting back in the tailwind section really limits the amount of intensity you can achieve. At higher speeds such as in a tailwind or draft, there is much more room to find that line between "pushing it" and "too much".
9) Cycling involves a lot of muscular endurance. Long rides are important to build strength and form. Nothing improves your endurance – both mentally and physically – better than sitting on your trainer and turning those pedals relentlessly – no coasting – for a few hours. There is a fine line between long and too long. Doing century rides with your friends just to rack up miles is not effective training (unless you are doing an Ironman – and only done during the IM specific build phase).
10) Keep your easy rides easy. Even easier. Pushing the pace on every ride is as ineffective as pushing the pace on every run. You end up training in that dead zone where you never recover enough to go into your quality ride with the freshness required to truly go hard and breakthrough. Turn off your computer or power meter for the easy rides and focus on low effort and pedal stroke efficiency instead.
11) If you splurge on one item in triathlon, make it a power meter. Many athletes have no idea how to go hard enough or how to go easy enough until they see their watts. A watt never lies. From a power file you can see who is drafting, who is slacking, who is grinding and who is nailing it. Power meters cost money – yes – and it pays to buy the ones that are costly. Power Tap and SRM are the most reliable and durable out there. The pay off, however, comes from the training and racing benefits. Racing with a Power Tap is the key to a better bike, better run and in turn a better race. Used properly, it eliminates room for pacing errors on the bike that tend to kill your run.
12) Body composition counts. Yes, a bigger cyclist produces more power but that same bigger cyclist loses more power when fighting inertia and gravity during hill climbs and accelerations. In cycling all that matters is power to weight ratio. The higher than ratio, the better cyclist you are. You improve that ratio by increasing your power or dropping weight. How much would it cost you in equipment to remove one pound from your bike? Let’s say you add race wheels – you’re looking at up to 1K for a decent set. Now, what if you just lost that one pound of body weight – or more? How much would you save in money and gain in speed?
13) Learn how to pedal a bike. Watch any novice (or slower) cyclist and you will see them riding with their cadence under 85 rpms. Why? It’s a very easy, lazy way to ride. It does not take much cardiovascular fitness to turn the pedals slowly. However, it does take a lot of force and muscle recruitment. As you engage more muscle fibers to push those pedals, you start to fatigue your legs for the run that follows the bike. Also, you burn calories at a slower rate which if not accounted for can leave you with GI problems in your race. Often athletes will complain that raising their cadence over 90 rpms brings their heart rate up – BINGO! When you can master it without the heart rate going up you have gained fitness. Then, the key is to hold that higher cadence in a bigger and bigger gear. Here’s another test: watch what your power does when you start spinning over 100 rpms. The stronger cyclists will see improvements in their power the faster they spin those pedals. Weaker cyclists tend to see their power drop when they get over 100 rpms.
14) Save the big cookie for important things. This is a lesson I learned on Ragbrai. You don’t go into the big cookie unless you mean something serious. That said, the small ring is an effective place to ride for warm ups, cool downs, recovery intervals or hills. Again, it helps you to truly go easy and helps you to work on your pedaling efficiency. Big cookie means business.
15) Race and ride within your limits. How many big dudes go out there on race day ready to drop the hammer then walk the run? What you do in training is what you will do in the race. If you’ve never held 20 mph for 3 hours on a training day chances are you will not do it in racing. So don’t set out to do that and blow your race. Learn the art of pacing – whether with a power meter, heart rate monitor, cadence or speed. There are so many ways to monitor yourself in cycling that there really is no excuse for poor performance other than the little voice in your head that talked you into overriding.
All this talk about biking makes me want to hop on my trainer right now and pedal nowhere. But at least I'm riding! And, I like it. The more you like something, the more you will get faster because you enjoy doing it and want to do it better.
That also costs nothing.