At our Boulder summer camp last year, Angela Naeth was asked how to become a better cyclist; she said to “point yourself uphill and do work.” Likewise, powerful Swedish cyclist Bjorn Andersson once told me that he saves his small ring for “emergency situations only.” What are these great cyclists getting at?
Coming from a running background, I entered triathlon with a large gap between my bike and run heart rate zones. On the flats, my bike zones were 20 bpm below my run zones. This gap was due to a lack of leg strength needed to stress my cardiovascular system. Doing intervals of “big gear” work—throwing your bike into a large gear and grinding it out—can help build cycling-specific leg strength.
Below are some sets that are easy to incorporate into your existing basic week. For your big gear work, cadence should be 60–75 RPM. Focus on pedaling smooth circles and drop your heel slightly on the down stroke to ensure your glutes are engaged.
Simple big gear: Inside an endurance ride insert 5×8 minutes big gear with 2 minutes easy spinning recoveries. Gradually build your heart rate to 8–12 bpm below your functional threshold heart rate (FTHR). FTHR is the best average heart rate you can sustain for an hour in similar terrain to where you are training.
Cadence changes: On the flats, alternate cadence in equal parts (60/92 or 75/92 RPM). For example: 2×40 minutes steady heart rate where you change cadence every 4 minutes between 60 RPM and 92 RPM. Steady heart rate is 15-20 bpm below FTHR. You’ll likely find that you can push more watts for a given heart rate when using lower cadences.
Sustained big gear rollers: On gently rolling terrain, ride on your aerobars nonstop for 20–45 minutes. This is a very specific strength workout and can be used on gradual climbs and rolling terrain alike. Cap your HR and stay 8 bpm (or more) below FTHR.
Specific TT strength climbs: For climbs of 30 minutes or more, alternate (by mile) between your TT position at 60–75 RPM and sitting up while spinning at 90 RPM. Cap your HR and stay 8 bpm (or more) below FTHR for the big gear segments and let your HR fall 10 bpm for each spinning segment.
While you will see benefits from using any cycling position with this type of training, you will get the most benefit from using your TT position. Resist the urge to sit up to make this workout easier and remember that you want to generate specific TT power.
For all of the sets above, a nice addition is 20–30 minutes of steady effort inserted immediately after the end of the final interval. To balance the low-cadence work of the intervals, use a cadence of 92 RPM for this bonus set.
Big Gear Tips and Cautions
• Hold good form. Specifically, maintain stable hips and control your knee alignment through the entire pedal stroke.
• If you find that you experience knee pain, you may have a leg strength limiter that needs to be addressed via traditional strength training. To reduce torque on your joints, keep your cadence no lower than 75 RPM.
• Working at or over FTHR is unnecessary and will require extended recovery.
• Keep your head up when moving fast outside!
• Balance your low-cadence training with equal time spent at 92 RPM.
• Set your bike cleats back and ensure a stable interface between your pedals and cleats. Lateral rocking of the bike shoe can trigger Achilles tendon issues.
Gordo Byrn is the founder of Endurancecorner.com, a former Ultraman champion and co-author of Going Long.