Cycle Stronger Now

Cycling tricks of the trade that could slash minutes off your triathlon times


Posted: 18 November 2009

Tour de France legend Greg LeMond once said, "It never gets any easier, you just go faster".  For some triathletes, it may feel more like, "It never gets any easier, and I never get any faster". However, the wise among you may have already realised that focusing on cycling can provide the biggest improvement
in your race times.

Although a triathlon involves three sports, the greatest proportion of time during a race is spent on the bike section. During a sprint- or Olympic-distance race you may spend around 50 to 65 per cent of your time perched on your saddle; during an Ironman the proportion is even greater at around 55 to 70 per cent. So if you don't already own padded shorts, now is the time to buy some.

Improving your cycling fitness won't only enable you to ride faster though, it will also reduce fatigue going into the run section. To race at your best, do not underestimate the importance of effective cycle training. In case you are in any doubt, these are the words of Stephen Bayliss, Britain's leading Ironman Triathlete: "For me the cycling section of a triathlon is so important. It can give me minutes on my opposition and when I am fit on the bike I am able to run even better off the bike." Time spent cycle training is worth its weight in gold.

There are similarities between cycle training and running training. Many runners regularly do long runs and interval sessions, and a cyclist would train in a simailr way - long rides at lower intensities to improve the economy with which the body uses oxygen, and shorter sessions at a higher intensity to train the body to delay the onset of lactic acid.

As with running, good technique is also a performance factor in cycling. For example, the best runners perform drills to help them run efficiently, while top cyclists practise good technique by pedalling smoothly in a circular motion, and keeping their upper-bodies relaxed. However, there are some fundamental differences between cycle training and running training, and it is only by fully understanding these differences that you could possibly shave minutes off your bike splits.

Gear ratio

Unlike running and swimming, equipment and aerodynamics are hugely important in cycling. Technophobes may yearn for the simplicity and purity of sports like running, but make no mistake: if you have enough determination, the science of cycling will enable you to slash minutes off your personal best. It is one of the few sports where time spent in a shed, or in front of a book, can be worth more than time spent training.

Thankfully, it is not all about having the most expensive and shiniest bike. It is about having a bike that fits you perfectly, with the most suitable gearing for the races you are doing. It is also about maintaining your bike, so that it runs efficiently and never lets you down.

Aerodynamics also play a huge part. Reducing your drag through the air enables you to travel faster without any extra effort. An easy way to reduce drag is simply to observe your bike position in a mirror from the front and the sides, making small adjustments that make you lower or smaller to the oncoming air resistance, while making sure you are still comfortable. Many triathletes use aero-bars to make them smaller at the front so they slip through the air.

Tight-fitting clothing and an aero-helmet also make a significant difference, as do certain kinds of wheels and handle bars. If you are in any doubt about the importance of aero-dynamics, go and watch a cycling time trial (www.cyclingtimetrials.org.uk).

Every second counts for these cyclists as they race against the clock. You will notice how much attention they pay to reducing their drag through the air. This is because they realise that improvements in aerodynamics can improve their times by literally minutes. It is no coincidence that most of the British Time Trial records are still held by Chris Boardman and Graeme Obree, both pioneers in this field.

Go long

Cyclists have it easier than some other endurance athletes because eating and drinking on a bike is a relatively simple task. No other sport keeps your stomach so stable, or allows you to carry all your food and fluids with you so easily. This is just as well because when you're pedalling hard you will be burning up a hefty 600 to 1000 calories per hour. Effective refuelling on the bike means that you can train for longer, without causing the body as much stress as a long run would.

Cycling is also a non-weight bearing sport, so cyclists do not suffer the muscle damage that runners might from hours spent pounding the Tarmac. It is for these reasons that you are able to train on the bike for several hours at a time, teaching the body to become efficient in the way it uses oxygen.
Cyclists typically spend the winter months riding long and steadily from two to five hours, at 70 to 75 per cent of their maximum, before racing and training their way to peak fitness through the spring. Some triathlon coaches even believe that these long rides have a strong cross-over effect, reducing the need for low-intensity runs and swims.

Turbo-charged

Turbo training is the cycling equivalent of running on a treadmill - and like treadmill running, excitement and mental stimulation do not always register highly. Despite the boredom factor, it is not uncommon for Ironman triathletes to turbo train for five or more hours - you could use the time to watch the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. However, unless you're training for an Ironman, you can be less tough on yourself by focusing on short quality sessions.

Aside from avoiding bad weather, the beauty of turbo training is that you never have to ease up for junctions, traffic or descents. In training terms, this means you can do consistent, measured periods of work that would be impossible on the open road. This is especially useful when doing higher-intensity speed work. For example, one great session for improving lactate threshold is two sessions of 15 minutes at 85 per cent of your maximum effort. Try doing this on the roads and you will soon become frustrated by the number of times you are forced to ease off the power. By doing it on the turbo trainer, you'll be able to concentrate on maintaining the right intensity level throughout the repetition.

While you are doing this kind of session on a turbo trainer, you can also improve your technique by listening to how smoothly you are pedalling and making adjustments to improve it. Smooth, efficient pedalling on a turbo trainer will make a constant droning sound, giving you extra power for no extra effort. However, if you are pedalling inefficiently you will hear an interrupted drone, from all of your effort being focused on the downward pedal stroke only. Just make sure you turn down the volume on your iPod before you try this.

Group dynamics

The fast-moving, tightly packed Tour de France peloton perfectly demonstrates the advantages of sheltering behind other cyclists. Known as 'drafting', riding behind a single cyclist gives you around a 10 per cent advantage, while being in a group can offer as much as a 30 per cent gain. Although drafting is banned in most triathlons, it is still extremely useful in training, allowing you to train with other cyclists who may be significantly faster or slower then yourself. With the faster riders staying at the front, and the slower ones tucking in behind, mixed ability groups can train together to everyone's advantage. Riding with others also provides a valuable safety net to the inevitable mechanical problems, accidents, becoming lost, and sudden changes in weather conditions.

Club together

Cycling clubs are a great option for any triathlete looking to improve their biking prowess. Many clubs offer group training rides, road races, time trials and even the opportunity to train on a track. Aside from the training opportunities, the beauty of being part of a cycling club is that it encourages you to think like a cyclist. Training and socialising with experienced cyclists allows you to broaden your horizons in terms of training, routes, equipment, bike maintenance, aerodynamics and where to find the best tea-shops. A good starting point for seeking out a cycling club near to you is www.britishcycling.org.uk - click on the club-finder link.

Time trials

Cycle time trials, nicknamed 'The Race of Truth', are a solo bike race, against the clock over a set distance and course.  Time trials are held all over the UK during the summer months at distances from one mile to 24-hours non-stop, but the most common distances are 10 and 25 miles. There are two different types of events: club and open time trials. Club events are low key and are often held on mid-week evenings. They allow entry on the line for the princely sum of one or two pounds and are the perfect summer's training session for triathletes. 

Open events on the other hand require entry at least two weeks in advance, via a standardised entry form. They tend to be at weekends, costing around £6 to enter with potential prize money and often an impressive selection of homemade cakes for refuelling at the finish. Some of the more serious and dedicated cycle time-triallists can be seen at open events, although there is also a wide spread of ability. Open events are a great way to learn about riding fast and you will get
to see the equipment and attention to aerodynamics that allow the top riders to maintain speeds of more than 30 miles per hour for 10 miles.

Competing in a time trial is as much a mental effort as a physical one, as you learn to push yourself for a personal best. It teaches you what hard riding feels like, and it will improve your triathlon performances. Also, because of the non-weight bearing nature of cycling, recovery is very quick, making time trials an excellent form of regular high-intensity training for triathletes.


Q&A

Q During the bike section of a triathlon my right foot went numb and I couldn't feel it again until almost the end of the run. I don't think it affected me physically but it was a strange sensation and one I'd be keen to avoid next time if possible. What caused it?

A Numbness in the feet during cycling is generally caused by nerve impingement between the metatarsal heads (foot bones) near the ball of the foot. Tight shoes are often the cause, and sometimes simply changing to a roomier shoe or even loosening the straps can solve the problem. Cycling shoes usually have a flat insole and so anatomically designed foot-beds or orthotic devices may also help. The use of running shoes for cycling can also cause numbness, as they allow the pressure of the pedals to transmit
through to the foot.

If these remedies don't work, you may need to adjust your pedals in order to redistribute the pressure on your feet. Move your cleats back about 2mm and try lowering your saddle the same amount. You should be able to feel a noticeable improvement.

Q On long rides I suffer from stiffness and pain in my neck during and after training.  Is there a cure for this?

A Neck pain is a common complaint among cyclists and can be caused by improper bike fit, particularly when excessive reach to the handlebar forces you to extend your neck to see ahead. Insufficient neck strength and riding long distances without a break are also contributory factors.

A sore neck can often be alleviated by raising the stem, or by installing a shorter stem. If you are using aero-bars you might try raising them. If your stem will not rise any higher, you may need new forks with a longer steerer tube for the stem to attach to. If all else fails, and you have the money to spend, a custom-made bike will provide a fit that is second to none.

Q I have recently taken up cycling, and have been experiencing quite bad saddle soreness.
Is there anything I can do to alleviate it?

A The first thing to do is make sure your riding position is correct. There are two hard bones in your bottom that you can feel if you sit on your hands, and these are where your weight should be centred on the saddle. Also, be sure that you are not reaching too far to your handlebars, causing you to roll forwards onto soft tissue. Wearing the right kind of shorts also helps. Clean, high-quality shorts with a padded inner-lining will reduce pressure on nerves and blood vessels, while minimising the chance of bacterial infection.

A good petroleum-based chamois cream can also make a big difference. Last but not least, cycling shorts are designed be worn without pants, so your bottom will thank you if you leave your smalls at home.


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