When striving for excellence, there is no magic pill. Sure, the latest aero wheels and a teardrop helmet are important, but becoming really fast on the bike is a long process that occurs over many years and demands endless hours of hard work, sound logic applied without compromise, and a strong belief in your own ability. While superb genetics are needed to get to the top end of the sport, anyone can work on improving cycling skills—no matter who you are and what your inherent ability is. Below are some of the things I have learned over the years that can help you drop some time off your bike split and become the best cyclist you are capable of becoming.
Uberbiking requires a blend of high aerobic power (VO2max), endurance and strength, so it is important to gauge which one of these aspects is your limiter and then work mercilessly to improve it.
Your maximal aerobic power is largely determined by your genetics, but it can be improved with a focused effort over long periods of time. If your engine is a bit small and you have a subpar VO2max, spend a couple of winters focusing on interval sets. Twice weekly, do four to six intervals of three to five minutes on the bike, recovering between each interval by spinning for at least three minutes. Try to do each interval on the same loop or on a trainer so you can measure your progress from session to session. If you are fit, you will need to take yourself to your limit by the end of each interval, finishing each with a heart rate close to max effort for the workout to have an effect on your maximal aerobic power.
Even if you don’t have much spare time on your hands to build endurance, you can get a near maximal training effect from just three hours of cycling per week. Three times per week, start with a 15-minute warm-up and then do a 30-minute time trial, followed by a 15-minute cool-down. This time trial should be hard and you will need to suffer, but you will see improvement to your fitness, even after just a few weeks. Just make sure you put in an extremely solid effort for each of those 30-minute time trials.
If you are preparing for an Ironman, the same rule applies: Make sure every minute counts. If you cannot find the time to cycle five to six hours every weekend, go for three hours at iron-distance pace. This type of training is very effective at providing the stimulus you will need to perform the best you can at your iron-distance race. If you instill these three-hour training sessions into your program you will only need to do a few select long rides before your goal race—done simply to build your confidence.
Strength is a component of cycling that’s sometimes overlooked. To push in excess of 400 watts for an hour, or more than 300 watts for 4.5 hours, you need to be able to push a significant load with every pedal stroke. That’s why many of the greatest cyclists in the sport have had sizable glutes and the characteristic “tree trunk” quads.
The best way to develop this strength is through what the Germans call “kraftausdauer,” or strength endurance training. By pushing high gears at 40 to 60 rpm and moderate to high loads over various interval distances, you can develop your ability to handle the force component in higher-intensity riding. For example, during your longer ride on the weekend, try putting in two to three uphill or headwind segments where you spend 10 to 20 minutes at moderate intensity, using a high enough gear that you can only pedal 50 to 60 rpm. This will help you build the strength that is required to be a good climber. During more intense workouts during the week, you can work on your strength by doing three to six 5-minute intervals at a high intensity and in a gear that only allows you to pedal 50 to 60 rpm. You can also boost your strength by doing 10 15- to 30-second intervals uphill, all-out, at a gear so high you can only pedal 40 to 50 rpm.
But remember that if you are looking to build strength, you must do so gradually, as strength endurance training puts a load on your hips and knees that is much greater than when you are cycling at a normal cadence. To get the maximal benefit out of your strength training, work up to adding strength elements into two of your weekly high-intensity or Ironman-focused sessions.
If you belong to the sprightly runner section of the tri demographic and are searching for more bike power, try hitting the gym in the off-season to work on your max strength, as this will be great preparation for pushing those bigger gears. Additionally, cyclists of all shapes and sizes will benefit from workouts on core strength, as this will help them stabilize their pedal stroke and use the force from their legs more effectively.
No matter what the limiting factors are to your cycling, you will need to challenge yourself if you want to improve. Go harder or longer than you ever have before and you will see results—as long as you pay attention to the fine art of balancing training with recovery.
Aerodynamics and position
When biking at higher speeds, 80 percent or more of your energy is used to overcome wind resistance—this makes aerodynamics a key factor in cycling success, and it’s why leading cyclists and triathletes spend hours in the wind tunnel perfecting their aero positions. For many, this wind tunnel time can break the bank, but a basic knowledge of aerodynamics, which can be learned with a little research, a trainer and a camera, can take you very far in perfecting your aero position.
My own wind tunnel experiences have given me insights into my aero position, but not in the way you might expect. During my first wind tunnel fit, in 2005, we tinkered with my position by moving my handlebars down, pushing my elbows together and stretching my arms a bit more, but nothing really helped until I accidentally dipped my head down in front of my shoulders midway during a test run. My drag numbers immediately dropped significantly to a level that would give me a three- to four-minute savings over 112 miles—not too bad for just lowering my head. At another point during the test, we set my elbow pads so close together that I started to wobble, and the bike going side to side made the drag numbers go through the roof.
These two experiences taught me that positioning was not so much about how my bike was set up but rather how I acted on the bike. From that point on, I called how I acted on the bike “dynamic positioning,” and I used what I learned from my wind tunnel experiences to the fullest extent possible. In every race I would put my head down, tuck my shoulders in and make sure I had aerobar extensions long enough so I could stretch forward when I was riding downhill, optimizing my aero position when it was most effective and important. I made sure my helmet lay flat on my back at all times and concentrated on riding in a straight line, which again helped me cut drag without buying a single piece of equipment or loosening one screw on my bike.