Tips to Ride Faster Cycling Uphill, Downhill, On Flat Ground, and Rolling Terrain
I’m getting ready to lead another group of passionate cyclists as we ride every mile of the Amgen Tour of California, and economy is the key to successfully getting riders through 645 miles in 7 stages. As my coaches and I help riders get ready for major road cycling challenges, we focus on building fitness and optimizing nutrition, but we also instruct athletes on how to ride faster, conserve energy, and use their fitness wisely. To help you prepare for your next big challenge, here is a short guide to the best ways to ride faster, everywhere.
Ride Faster Uphill
This is the area people often focus on the most, but you have to be careful not to focus on climbing so much that you take away from your ability to ride well on the flats and rollers. Training for climbing is a huge subject, but for cyclists who have already been training and doing climbing workouts, here are ways to get the best performance from your fitness.
Don’t start too fast
Many riders charge the bottom of a hill or sustained climb and then fade badly before reaching the summit. The goal is to meter your effort so you have power for the top third of the ascent, because cracking near the top will cost you more time than you can gain at the bottom. This is crucial if you’re in a group because you want to go over the top with other riders so you can draft and work together after the descent.
Find a rhythm
Especially for longer climbs, settle into an intensity level, breathing rate and cadence you can maintain. If you’re panting uncontrollably you’re riding at an unsustainable level. For prolonged climbs your breathing will be deep and labored when you’re near your maximum sustainable power, and you should able to speak in short phrases.
Mashing too big a gear fatigues your leg muscles quickly, and spinning a ridiculously light gear if inefficient and spikes your heart rate. For most riders, the balance point between these extremes falls somewhere around 85-95rpm.
Best Workout: 5x3min PowerClimb
Long climbing repeats and other lactate threshold intervals are the cornerstones of climbing workouts. A great workout to add to your repertoire is a 5x 3minute PowerClimb workout. Each interval should be at about 120-125% of lactate threshold power, and you should take 5 minutes of easy spinning recovery between efforts. The idea is to pace your three-minute climb so your power output and pace start fading in the final 20-30 seconds. This means you don’t want to start out at full gas, crack at 60 seconds, and then ride the rest at an aerobic power output. You want to be above threshold the whole time. These efforts help build power and tolerance for short accelerations and changes in pitch on hills.
Ride Faster Downhill
Whether you’re trying to finish a Tour of California stage, a gran fondo, or the local group ride, descents are free speed. Don’t give up time you worked hard to gain on the preceding climb.
Get in the drops
Descend with your hands in the drops for better aerodynamics and weight distribution, but forget the super tuck. You want a low position, but don’t mimic the pros by sitting on the top tube. Not only are the risks reasonably high, but is also takes more energy to hold those positions than to keep your rear on the saddle and lower your shoulders. If your bike fit doesn’t enable you to comfortably descend in the drops, which is a problem we see frequently, then you need your fit adjusted.
Don’t ride the brakes
You shouldn’t ride descents with reckless abandon, but many riders make the mistake of riding the brakes too much on downhills. If you’re uncomfortable with speed, seek instruction to improve your skills and body position. Keep your gaze far forward to smooth out your line (like walking a balance beam) and take the time to learn how powerful your brakes are. Disc brakes, for instance, enable riders to brake later before turns, and from higher speeds. Always adjust your speed before a corner, rather than in the middle of it.
Weight outside foot and inside hand
The basics of cornering at speed are to look through the corner to where you want to exit (as opposed to looking at the apex of the corner), extend your outside leg and focus your weight through your outside pedal, and push your inside arm into the turn. With your pressure centered on the outside pedal and inside handlebar, your body will stay more upright while the bike leans more into the corner. This keeps your center of gravity closer to the line of your tires, which helps enhance traction. To tighten the line of your turn, apply more pressure with your inside hand.
Ride Faster on Flat Ground
Even if you’re a great climber, you still need to be able to cover the ground between climbs at a good pace. And if climbing isn’t your strength, then the flats are where you can excel.
Stay on a wheel
During big multi-day rides like the Amgen Tour of California Race Experience, we remind athletes to stay in the draft any time they drift too far to the side or open a gap. It’s not that the immediate cost is that high, but that small wasted efforts add up to a lot of wasted power and energy. Be diligent. Watch the wind and put yourself in the best position to stay in the draft.
Find the right group
If you’re in a group ride or a cycling event like a gran fondo, century, or multiday tour, you don’t want to be either the strongest or weakest rider in your group. If you latch on to a group that’s way too strong, you’re likely to dig too deep too early and get dropped. If you’re too conservative and end up in a slower group where you’re the strongest rider, it is hard for the rest of the group to help share the work. Ideally, you’re right in the middle so you can benefit from the stronger riders and also contribute your fare share.
If you’re alone, don’t fight the wind
For the sake of your overall speed, don’t get in a fight with a climb or the wind. They’ll win. If you dig too deep before the climb is over, you’ll slow to a crawl. If you struggle against the wind on a long ride, you’ll just run out of energy sooner. If you’re racing a time trial, digging deep into the wind is important because you can make up the most time during the hardest parts of the course. But if you’re on a long ride, especially solo, gauge your effort on the power output or intensity level you can sustain, rather than the speed you want to go. It may feel painfully slow at times, but in the long run it’s faster than exhausting yourself and then crawling along at half power.
Best workout: Tempo
Tempo intervals are best way to use shorter workouts to prepare for long flat rides. The intensity is below lactate threshold but harder than your cruising endurance pace (80-85% of CTS Field Test Power, 88-90% of CTS Field Test Heart Rate, or RPE 6/10). Aim to ride an uninterrupted interval of 30-45 minutes in a gear that brings your cadence down to about 70-75 rpm. This scenario helps you develop the aerobic power and neuromuscular adaptation to maintain inertia rolling along flat roads at moderate power output.
Ride Faster in Rolling Hills
Some of the hardest days I’ve ever spent on the bike were in rolling hills. Big mountain stages have long climbs, but they also have long descents. An endless succession of rolling hills can crush you if you underestimate the total amount of climbing you’re doing and use your energy unwisely.
Don’t charge the early hills
When the hill is only 30 seconds or a minute long it’s tempting to just charge up it with brute force. That might work for the first hour, but you’re burning through matches you’re going to need hours later. Stay seated and use your lower gears and higher cadence on the early hills so you have some brute force left for hills later in the day.
Push on the downhills
If you ride up the hills at a sustainable intensity instead of charging up them, then you have the ability to accelerate over the tops and keep applying power to pick up speed on the downhill. You end up with less of an “on-off” power profile and lessen the amplitude between the peak power on the hill and no power on the descent. Pushing on the descents helps you get further up the next roller before having to shift down and start spinning.
Keep your group together
Keeping a group together on rolling hills can be a challenge. Stronger riders can rip the group apart by setting an uphill pace that’s good for them but too hard for others. Over the top, the riders in the front of the group have to keep pedaling so the riders in the draft aren’t on the brakes all the way down the other side. Communication is key, and the people in the middle of the group should call the shots. They can tell if people in the back are starting to struggle on the uphill and are the first to start riding into the backs of those in front of them if the pace is too slow on the downhill.
Riding just a little bit faster – or a bit more economically – everywhere means you may not have to dig really deep anywhere. The bigger an individual effort the more it takes out of you, and the less you have in the tank for later. One of the big reasons we have coaches on the road with athlete during the Amgen Tour of California Race Experience, is to help athletes manage their efforts and optimize their speed. As a result, athletes who may start out doubting their ability to ride more than 600 miles in 7 days reach the final finish line with smiles on their faces and an unparalleled sense of accomplishment.
Success in cycling isn’t just about how strong you are. It’s about how wisely you use your strength.
CEO/Head Coach of CTS