It’s been a great week riding the Ride the Rockies cycling event in Colorado. The weather was great for riding and the people were incredible. Cyclists of all ages, shapes, sizes and skill levels rode together, helped each other out, and made new friends. As a coach I tend to pay attention to how people ride, their positions on the bike, and the decisions they make. I saw a lot of great riders at Ride the Rockies, and a lot who had opportunities for improvement.
The areas for improvement fall into a few broad categories, and are they show up equally in tours, cycling trips, training camps, gran fondos, and centuries. Working on these skills and techniques will simply make the ride more enjoyable. I understand not everyone wants to go faster. Some people have no desire to work in a rotating pace line. The advice below isn’t about trying to make cycling enthusiasts ride like bike racers. It’s about giving enthusiasts the tools to struggle less and enjoy more during the ride.
Relax on the climbs
People get intense on climbs, and it often works against them. Some people seem to believe that going uphill means you have to go as fast as you can uphill. On long climbs and long days with a lot of climbing, it’s not wise to ride every climb as fast as you can. Instead of charging up the climb and blowing up halfway, do this:
- Roll in with momentum: If you’re coming off a flat road, don’t slow down pre-emptively. If you’re coming off a hill, don’t coast into the uphill.
- Shift down through the gears one by one: You’re searching for the balance between force and cadence and you still want to keep your momentum. Don’t dump the chain from the middle of the cassette all the way to the granny gear in one shot. As you slow down, shift down so your cadence stays more constant. This can all happen quickly so you don’t bog down in too big a gear, but it should ideally be deliberate single shifts.
- Back off a little bit: To avoid a dramatic slowdown partway up the hill, back off a bit (2-5%, a smidge) from trying to go as fast as you can at the start of the climb. Don’t burn your matches early. Going a bit easier in the beginning means you won’t slow down as much further up the climb, which means going slower can make you faster (and more comfortable).
- Loosen up: Your shoulders shouldn’t be by your ears. Your upper body shouldn’t be rigid, and you shouldn’t need a death grip on the bars. Find the right gear to get you to your preferred cadence, loosen up your grip, drop your shoulders, and bend your elbows. And don’t let yourself tense up again as the climb continues. Stay relaxed.
Pedal over the summits
I see so many people reach the top of a climb and stop pedaling, and in a long ride that’s one of the worst consequences of charging up hills and being really tense while climbing. Really steep or really long climbs… OK, that makes sense. But for smaller climbs and rolling hills, you want to get to the top without being so gassed you can’t pedal (see above). When you pace the climb better you can maintain your climbing effort level while you start shifting up through the gears as the hill levels out. You pick up speed quickly and several miles an hour faster than if you had coasted or lightly spun over the top.
Pedal the descents of rolling hills
Instead of coasting, pedal steadily at an intensity just high enough to maintain tension on the pedals. This will be a very low power output, and hence barely more energy output than coasting, but you’ll maintain your speed and carry more of it onto the flat road or the next rolling hill.
Get a bike fit
A cyclist’s position on the bike has to balance aerodynamics, power output, and comfort. The more you pursue any one of the three, the more the others suffer. Bike shops and bike fitters do cycling enthusiasts a disservice when they prioritize comfort above all else and send a rider out on the road in a position way more upright than the bike was designed for. Road bikes are designed to handle well with the rider’s weight balanced between the wheels. While the weight distribution is probably never 50/50 to begin with, as a rider’s handlebars get higher his or her weight shifts back toward the rear of the bike. Less weight over the front wheel means less control, less traction, and less stability in gusty winds or crosswinds. This is a huge contributing factor to cyclists’ fear of descending at speed. Their weight distribution is so off that the bike feels unstable at speed and in corners and the front wheel responds to even moderate amounts of wind.
Get a bike fit that allows you to feel comfortable handling your bike in common cycling scenarios, not one that just makes the bike more like an easy chair.
Get comfortable drafting
I get it. Sometimes you don’t want to deal with the mental engagement necessary to stay on a person’s wheel. You don’t have to ride in a pace line or a group all day, but learn how to draft and get comfortable drafting so the rest of us can help you when you’re struggling and you can help someone else when they’re struggling. On a long day with a headwind, drafting could mean getting to the next aid station 30 minutes sooner, not because the two or more people in your group were doing a team time trial, but rather because you each could recover in the draft between pulls and therefore maintain a steadier overall pace. And if you can’t pull through, just speak up. If it’s a race, a competitor generally won’t let you just sit on the wheel. But in non-competitive events, most people won’t mind helping you out.
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Stay aware of your surroundings
When you’re sharing the road with a large group of cyclists you have to pay more attention to the line you’re riding, the people ahead of you, and the people behind you. You can’t ride out in the middle of the road. Not only does it annoy cars, but it also means anyone trying to pass you has to go even farther out into the lane.
Look before you move. A quick glance over your shoulder or under you arm works. I have noticed an increase in the number of riders using either a helmet-mounted or handle-bar mounted mirror, too. Along with looking before you move, it’s important to look before you pull over to stop.
Eat, sleep, and hydrate
Cycling trips, tours, and camps are typically 2x or even 3x the weekly workload a cyclist is accustomed to from their own training. If your workload is elevated, you need to elevate your focus on recovery as well. Your daily caloric expenditure will likely be higher than normal for several days in a row, and consuming adequate energy is crucial for recovery. It’s even more important than optimizing the amounts of carbohydrate, fat, and protein you consume. You’re sweating for more hours each day, for more days in a row, so keeping up with hydration is more challenging. And to recover from an increased workload you have to get a good night’s sleep – every night. Go to bed early, keep the room dark and cool to improve sleep quality, and skip the glass of wine as a nightcap.
Each of these areas for improvement saves a little bit of energy, conserves a bit more speed, or helps riders feel a bit more energized. Individually the impacts are small, but all together they can have a transformative effect on a cyclist, making every ride more enjoyable and opening up more opportunities for new and different events.
Enjoy the ride,
CEO/Head Coach of CTS
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