I watched every second of the men’s 2008 Olympic Triathlon from Beijing, glued to the streaming and soundless broadcast and captivated by the redline drama right from the gun. The swim was 18 frenzied minutes to make the compulsory first pack, the hilly bike commanded a complete portfolio of fitness and cycling skills in order to arrive at T2 among the leaders, and the 30-minute war of attrition over the 10K run course had a breathtaking sprint finish you rarely see in triathlon.
In the days after, however, I was surprised and disappointed to hear from a few of our sport’s purists that they felt this style of racing wasn’t really a true test of the triathletes’ swimming, biking, and running abilities. “Anyone could just hide in that massive peloton and rest up for the run,” you’d hear often, as if any age-grouper could actually hang on at 35 mph even with a draft, corner at those speeds without hitting the hay bails, or have a prayer of keeping the pack in sight every time the road tilted up for the 1K grueling climb followed by a challenging descent. The naysayers would have you believe that a 112-mile solo time trial is the essence of the sport of cycling. (Strange, since the draft-legal version looks a whole lot more like that race in France we triathletes are rather captivated by each July, and just about every average American would identify as cycling.)
I am not suggesting that we all start draft-legal racing every weekend, although Olympian Jarrod Shoemaker gave us “mortals” a chance with his exciting new Draft Legal Challenge this year. Rather, I think we can all learn from the demands of this sibling discipline of our customary brand of triathlon as we look for new ways to get fitter and faster on the bike while also having more fun along the way.
Embrace riding in more than just a straight line in order to develop and hone new skills and exhilarating sensations this season. Join a group ride that includes some open-minded roadies, and you’ll begin to improve your bike handling and safety skills such as emergency braking, avoiding potholes, drinking and eating with one hand and dressing properly for assorted conditions. Plus, you’ll gain an appreciation for the nuances, abilities and maintenance requirements of your bike. Enter a local bike time trial or hill climb and reach a new level of exertion and speed, as you hold nothing back without a run to follow. Learn effective pacing strategies, ideal cadence management, when to stand and when to sit and spin, and how to remain as aero as possible while delivering maximum power to the pedals. Take a mountain bike clinic and find an incredible new world of two-wheeled fun with a bunch of transferable skills and fitness gains that will come in quite handy as you continue to improve as a triathlete, on road or off.
Don’t neglect the value of a good ol’ lactate threshold interval workout, or the occasional character- and endurance-building solo century, but go ahead and freshen things up a bit this season by adding a little spice, courtesy of our bike racing (and ITU) brothers and sisters.