In recent years the bike industry has gone nuts with drag, and there are numerous papers and studies published from subjective sources that claim to have discovered the be-all, end-all when it comes to aerodynamics. While significant gains have been made in the industry, they often distract from other areas of equal importance to the would-be uberbiker, such as bike-handling skills. If you have ever gone down a hairpin descent or a roundabout with a pro roadie, you know what I’m talking about, as the difference between a great and a poor bike handler easily amounts to five to 10 seconds per corner. On technical courses, the importance of feeling at one with your bike, of knowing how to cut corners by virtue of what you feel and not what you think, can save you several minutes. In 2002, I lost the ITU Long Distance World Championships to one of the nicest athletes I know, Cyrille Neveu, who now runs the Alpe d’Huez Triathlon. While Neveu is definitely a great rider, he never really reached uberbiker status, and yet during the 2002 Long Distance World Championships on a mountainous course in Nice, France, he was able to take seven minutes out of a bunch of equally strong and stronger riders through his superb descending skills. These were skills he had learned while riding his bike in the Alps.
Bike-handling skills can be taught to some extent, but they are best learned with practice. When cornering, a cyclist must choose the line that will catapult him or her out of the corner relative to riders who aren’t as skilled at cornering. Usually, by going in wide, then cutting narrowly into the corner, and then exiting wide, a cyclist can achieve this catapult effect. In other words, the line you are following is a relatively flat arc compared to the arc of the corner. The maximal speed you can travel along this line without crashing is determined by things such as road surface, tire choice, bike fit and geometry. But more importantly, the maximal speed you can travel along this line is also determined by how you position your body on the bike. Bringing your center of mass a bit forward and down when entering the turn, leaning your inner shoulder into and forward in the corner as well as popping out your inner knee as an air-brake will usually give you the best result. If you decide you want to learn how to corner, you should first practice the skill in an empty parking lot or on a deserted street before trying it in a group ride or during a race. You might also search out the help of a good, technical rider, because no matter how much you read about cornering, the quickest way to learn the skill is to follow the line of someone who excels at it.
The debate about choosing the most efficient cadence has been ongoing for many years. Studies in physiology tell us that a lower cadence—about 60 to 70 rpm at moderate workloads—is the most energy efficient, and yet many triathletes race the iron distance with 80 to 90 rpm. Along those same lines, Lance Armstrong’s extremely high cadence—often upward of 110 rpm—baffled the scientific community during his seven straight Tour de France wins.
I believe this inconsistency between science and practice has to do with strength and acceleration. There is a big difference between pedaling on an ergometer in a lab and riding in a peloton on undulating roads, where you need to constantly accelerate or decelerate in response to other riders, the course and the terrain. Acceleration at lower cadences occurs less rapidly and requires far more muscle force than accelerating at a higher cadence. So while a lower cadence of 60 to 70 rpm is more energy efficient, if you are accelerating at all while you ride—which you almost certainly are—accelerating at a lower cadence also saps the strength you need to run once you get off the bike. To get an idea of the difference between strength fatigue and energy fatigue and why you need to worry about it, imagine going to the gym and doing three sets of 10 squats at your max weight. You aren’t going to use much energy doing this, but you are going to sap your muscle strength and break down muscle fibers, making it very difficult to run well after you’ve finished the workout.
Thus, in triathlon, finding the right cadence is a balance between strength and energy efficiency. You cannot go too low, as it will drain the strength you need to run, and you cannot go too high, as it will deplete your energy stores too fast.
Other factors should also influence your cadence choice. According to a 2009 scientific review by Ernst Hansen and Gerald Smith in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, cadence has been shown to go up when workload, or power, increases, so you will most likely choose a higher cadence in a short time trial compared to your usual long training ride. Athletes with a high VO2max choose a higher cadence when riding at the same relative intensity as athletes with a lower VO2max, most likely because they push higher watts and thus need to ease the load on the legs. (This phenomenon partly explains why Armstrong chooses a higher cadence than the rest of us—he pushes higher watts.)
Very few athletes consider the impact of tactics on overall performance, yet accurate pacing can make or break your race. Even pros often ride the first half of an iron-distance bike leg at a significantly higher workload than the back half. Sometimes the difference can be as much as 50 watts, which equals a whopping 10 to 15 minutes. Part of this is due to a rarely well-enforced 10-meter non-drafting rule, but in many cases it is often a sign of misjudged pacing that costs triathletes dearly in the latter stages of a race. Holding an even effort over the entire course will save you precious fuel for the run that your impatient competitors won’t have.
Another element of tactics is to distribute your energy intelligently over the course of the race relative to wind resistance. When riding uphill, wind resistance is relatively low, but when riding downhill, resistance is high. Therefore, it is wise to use a bit more, but not too much, of your power going up hills and spend less on the way down, deliberately tucking into your best aero position as you do so to decrease the effect of the added wind resistance. Another little trick involving wind resistance is to limit your fluid intake to the uphill sections, as reaching for bottles or straws often involves subpar aerodynamics.
The hurt locker
Cycling is a tough sport. Not only do we use big muscle groups that enable us to ride at a high intensity for hours, but our muscles work concentrically, meaning they fatigue much less quickly than in weight-bearing sports such as running. This slowness to fatigue means that already-fit cyclists have to ride longer or harder to expose their muscles to new stimuli. This is why your ability to become an uberbiker is closely tied to your willingness to suffer.
While you can use this article’s tips to help you move toward your goal of becoming an uberbiker, remember that you must also train your ability to stay positive while you’re in pain and explore your physical limits. Goal setting and joining a stimulating training group can also improve your chances of becoming an uberbiker.
Have fun turning those cranks.
Sindballe was one of triathlon’s uberbikers when he was a pro. He is a contributing writer for Inside Triathlon.