By Chris Carmichael,
Founder and Head Coach of CTS
Indoor cycling had a banner year in 2020 and through the winter, and now that spring has sprung there are a lot more cyclists taking their bikes off the trainer and heading out on the road and trail. Some are brand new to outdoor cycling, having caught the cycling bug during the pandemic. Others are experienced riders who have dramatically increased their fitness level because of the convenience and consistency indoor cycling provided over the past several months. Similar problems can befall both groups, as well as anyone who has spent a lot of time indoors, or even riding solo. Many riders have more fitness and power than experience or skill riding at high speed, or with a group, or through actual corners. Here’s how to bring your skills up to your speed.
Indoor Advantage: Zwift lets you take corners at any speed you want.
Outdoor Disadvantage: Riding downhill switchbacks at 40mph outdoors will send you to the hospital.
How to fix it: Some of the indoor apps slow you down to more realistic cornering speeds, and braking is a feature that will be coming to smart trainers and smart bikes soon, but for the moment your avatar can probably rip around corners faster than you can in real life. Here’s what we’re seeing from predominantly indoor cyclists at cycling camps:
- Sitting too upright for cornering: Your body position on the bike doesn’t matter when cornering in an app, but in the real world you have to distribute your weight between the wheels, lower your shoulders, put your hands in the drops, and get some weight over that front wheel.
- Following too close going into turns: You want to stay close to the wheel ahead of you so you don’t drop out of the draft, but going into a corner you also want to give that wheel enough space so you can coast or feather the brakes if the person in front of you slows down more than you do. If you back off the wheel just a little bit, you can let the person ahead of you brake for the turn, brake less than they do, and maintain more of your own momentum as you close the distance before the exit.
Riding in Close Quarters
Indoor Advantage: No bumping shoulders
Outdoor Disadvantage: Lack of confidence riding in close quarters
How to fix it: Practice makes perfect, and it will take time to get comfortable riding with someone inches off your elbow or shoulder. The big thing is to stay calm and keep your upper body relaxed so that you can absorb an elbow or shoulder bump from the side before it affects your steering. When in close quarters, keep your focus far forward and stay aware of the riders around you with your peripheral vision. Like being on a balance beam, your forward gaze stabilizes your line. If you bring your vision in close, to your handlebars or the riders directly around you, your ability to track a straight line will diminish.
Indoor Advantage: Ride straight through the group.
Outdoor Disadvantage: To move up through the group you have to know how to find or safely create lanes you can move through.
How to fix it: To get from the back of the group to the front in an app, you just have to pedal harder. Moving up in the real world is a whole different challenge because real riders don’t get out of the way and you can’t ride through them. You could move out into the wind and try to ride up the side of the group, but that’s the least energy-efficient way to do it. The best way to move up is within the group while you’re still in the draft, but that takes skill and patience.
To move up in a peloton during a group ride or event, you have to take advantage of the slight changes in speed that ripple through the group. As riders around you accelerate or slow down, small lanes open up. Look diagonally forward to your right and left for spaces you can move into. In friendly group rides there’s no reason to do this aggressively; wait until there’s plenty of room to move. In more aggressive environments, like criteriums, get your handlebars ahead of the rider next to you and you’ll have more control to safely take the space you want. When you take the space, move with confidence and complete the move. This gets you clear of the rider you’re passing, which is helpful to them and for you. Stalling mid-way through a move is more likely to pinch the rider you’re passing, which can lead to falls.
Indoor Advantage: Drafting by numbers
Outdoor Disadvantage: Drafting by feel
How to fix it: Drafting is a wonderful feature of indoor cycling apps, but it doesn’t look or feel like it does in real life. Learning to draft effectively in-app is a skill that even the most experienced outdoor cyclist has to spend time mastering. The two are not the same skill. Indoors you have to rely mostly on the on-screen information to know if and how well you’re drafting, and you might be able to tell the difference in your legs. The opposite is true outdoors, where you will feel the draft first and only use the numbers on your computer for possible confirmation.
The other thing newer cyclists experience, especially if they started primarily indoors, is that outdoors it is harder to micro-adjust your speed to stay the optimal distance from the wheel ahead. Novice group riders accelerate too hard to get closer to the wheel ahead of them, then brake when they get too close. A better way to adjust your speed in the draft without tapping the brakes (which has a ripple effect for the riders behind you) is to move slightly out into the wind to let the air resistance slow you down a little bit, then get back into the best drafting position. Just don’t move over too much, because otherwise you’ll lose your position.
Indoor Advantage: Body position doesn’t affect in-app aerodynamic drag
Outdoor Disadvantage: Your powerful position (more upright) is least aerodynamic
How to fix it: Your cycling position balances comfort, aerodynamic drag, and power production. Typically, the most aerodynamic position isn’t the most powerful one, and neither is the most comfortable. Indoors, aerodynamic drag is consistent and set by the app based on the equipment and body dimensions you input into the settings. As a result, there’s no advantage to maintaining an actual aerodynamic cycling position indoors, and riders instead utilize their most powerful (less aerodynamic) position.
When riders go out on the road they wonder why their performance is so different. Their powerful riding position catches a ton of wind and slows them down, or they move to a more aerodynamic position they haven’t been practicing indoors and thus have limited power. The key to fixing this is to practice outdoor riding behaviors indoors. In reality, your indoor setup is the perfect place to practice and refine your cycling position because you can control variables like resistance, course, and wind in order to determine whether changes to your position are sustainable and whether they improve (or at least don’t diminish) power output over a specific period of time. This is why I recommend riders complete high-intensity intervals indoors in the drops or in their time trial/triathlon position. When you’re going hard in your goal event those are the positions that will be most aerodynamically advantageous, so use your time indoors to develop power in those positions.
Some older or more experienced cyclists will say this is all ridiculous; if you can ride indoors you can ride outdoors. If you’ve been doing both for decades that’s true. But there’s no denying that pack riding and trail riding skills get rusty when the balance of an experienced cyclist’s pedaling time shifts to include more hours indoors. And we are absolutely seeing an increase in the number of cyclists who have the aerobic fitness and sustainable power output to keep up with groups that far exceed their technical skill and tactical savvy. So, if you’re not feeling too confident in outdoor cycling situations right now, you’re not alone. Give yourself some time and space, get some skills help from a coach, and avoid the urge to just ride by yourself or retreat back to the indoor trainer. You’ve got this.