If you want to go faster on your bike, you don't have to train more or harder. You don't have to buy more expensive equipment either.
It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of buying performance in any of the sports in which I compete or have competed or those in which my coaching clients compete. Instead, when it comes to training, I’m a blue collar kind of guy and I believe in having work ethic over using a credit card.
Don’t get me wrong, I like nice shiny equipment and I have my fair share. So do many of my coaching clients. But I will always believe that what separates the best from the rest is the ability to knuckle down and do the work.
For many people, that means doing huge mileage and loads of very painful interval work. However, despite my work ethic, I believe in training smart over simply training hard. I don’t think of “work” in simply a physical sense, but rather in terms of working on the basics; things that really matter and make a big difference.
I’ve read a number of stories about a chap called Steve Nash, a two-time basketball (NBA) “Most Valuable Player”. He wasn’t a big guy and he couldn’t dunk a basketball. However, he was recognised as one of the best players in the world. Why? Because he practised the basics, over and over and over again. He wasn’t to be seen doing trick shots or simply seeking to have fun doing the novel stuff, just… the basics.
Here are a few bike racing basics that you can work on that WILL make you faster...
1. Learn to Corner Fast.
I mean learn to corner FAST.
If you’re going to be a criterium racer, you need to be able to corner. However, many triathletes, time trialists and road racers ignore this aspect of their riding because it’s such a small part of what they do. If however, you’re looking to reduce your times or save energy when you’re racing, the ability to carry maximum speed through a corner is vital.
Find a circuit where there you can corner 4 or 5 times in a mile and spend an hour a week there instead of simply going for a steady ride. Massive action equals massive learning: One mile, 5 corners for an hour equals a hundred or so corners. If you’re mindful of what you’re doing on each and every one, you can’t help but improve.
Want some tips on how to do it better? This blog post is just about cornering.
2. Learn to Descend
This is allied to cornering, but the speeds involved require a bit more nerve.
Have you noticed how some people seem to be able to switch off their self-preservation instinct and just go for it?
Every ride, on every descent, look for opportunities to maximise the speed you carry. Try different lines, body positions etc and find what allows you to turn that white-knuckle, brake destroying crawl to the valley floor into a high speed, fun experience that has you looking for more descents.
Look for downhill sections that have more twists and turns. Don’t be afraid of these. You never get better at something you don’t practise.
For those who ride mostly road bikes: Beg or borrow a mountain bike, or dust it off if you have one in the shed, and go mountain biking. You will quickly learn what a bike will do if you let it. Those MTB skills transfer amazingly to the road.
3. Practise Sprinting
Once again, I hear the triathletes saying that they don’t need to sprint. You’d be right. However sprinting will force you to recruit muscle fibres that lie long unused. The ability to use more muscle fibres means you ride faster. No, riding uphill in a huge gear with a slow cadence is not the same thing and is nowhere near as effective.
Sprinting targets a different energy system, which proofs you a little against the inevitable changes of pace that you’ll find in almost any bike race (even in a TT or triathlon). Have you ever been out with a group of road racers who, although they can’t ride anywhere near as quick as you when they’re on their own, will destroy you at some point, just because they can’t seem to ride a nice steady pace (spoiler alert: sometimes it’s on purpose). If you only train or race at one pace, you’re vulnerable whenever you need to step up the effort.
If you’re a road or criterium racer, sprints mean points and we all know that points mean prizes (in the form of category promotions). Most riders have a shot at winning in a breakaway in a fourth category race. However, this gets tougher and tougher as you rise through the ranks. At some stage, if you’re going to keep accumulating points, you’re going to have to sprint.
Take a friend to somewhere wide open (I suggest a closed circuit or airfield), have them ride hard in front of you for a mile or so and then sprint. Once they’re going as hard as they can, go around them and go all out for about 100m. For this to work best, they have to be going flat out when you launch your sprint. Repeat a few times with a good pedalling rest between efforts of at least 5, preferably 10 minutes. Make sure you return the favour.
This will also require that you’re good at the next item on my list...
4. Learn to Ride in a Group
I got asked a question once that was very instructive:
"Is cornering alone at 20MPH the same as cornering in a group of 30 riders at 25MPH?"
Nope! It’s simply not the same technique. I know a lot of folks who are great at riding bikes when they're alone, but who find themselves out the back of any group after the first few corners because they’re not prepared for all the ways that group riding is different.
That’s not all though. Certainly on any closed road circuit built by British Cycling in the last few years, if you cannot ride in a group, you’re either going to have to be monster strong or you’ll not be in the race after a lap or two. The circuits are fairly flat, exposed and always windy. The ability to ride in a group is vital.
Find a few friends and practise riding in front of, behind, next to and surrounded by other riders. Again, look out for a blog post in the next few weeks, solely about this key technique.
You need to become comfortable riding between 6 and twelve inches (15 - 30cm) behind the rider in front of you and a similar distance from those to the side whilst remaining both relaxed and focused. Get used to touching elbows and even leaning momentarily on the riders around you. It goes without saying, you need a group of people you trust to ride consistently and sensibly.
Does this apply to you if you’re a triathlete or time trialist? I’d argue that anything that will make you a better and more confident bike rider is worth pursuing. What’s more, you won’t have the local cycling club rolling their eyes and avoiding you like the plague when you turn up to a club run.
These are just four quick things that you can do that will make you a better bike rider/racer if you’re willing to include them in your programming and approach them in a mindful, focused manner.
Cycling and triathlon are often thought of just as "training sports". The temptation is to believe that just getting fitter equals improved performance.
I feel that this is potentially made worse by the advent of virtual reality turbo trainers and their offshoot: e-racing. Racing indoors requires no bike handling skills, no bunch riding skills and very little tactical ability.
The items above are all about being going faster on your bike in the real world.
Do you have more of your own? I’m sure you do, add them in the comments below.