In this post we’re going to cover 5 basic tips to help you get faster on the bike. Some of these may seem obvious, but more often than not the basics get neglected. Optimising how we perform the basics can lead not only to multiple marginal gains, but fairly massive gains too!
Training is obviously one of the best ways that we can get faster on the bike. If you don’t train, you won’t get faster. However, optimising the way we train is what will make the biggest difference. It’s all well and good reading the literature around training and trying to apply this theories and methodologies to our own training, but each of use are individuals, and the optimal training will be different to what it is for someone else.
Let’s take for example a professional rider (A), a keen amateur with part time work (B), and an amateur working full time and with a family (C). Rider A can train large volume with maximal recovery due to having both more time to train and rest. If rider B or C attempted to match that volume, they would burn out and hit a state of over-training (under-recovering). Additionally, B and C likely have different goals. A is targeting stage races and events lasting more than 5 hours with surges. B is targeting 3 hour road races, and C is targeting 1 hour crits. Each event will require different training.
So tailoring training to both availability of training time but also resting time is incredibly important. Any training plan you make needs to be sustainable, even if that means progress may not happen as quickly as a fast track plan. Fast track training is like fast track weight loss, short term gains than can hinder the overall long term gains which will have a higher net gain. It is also very important to train for the events you are aiming for, as that will dictate how you should be training.
Another important consideration is the rider’s physiology. It’s a fact that as you get older, your ability to recover as fast is reduced, so the rate of build in training needs to be lower, and greater recovery taken into account. At the other end of the scale, younger riders can recover quicker, but generally will not have as good endurance capacity, so volume needs to be controlled. Taking into account individual rider capacity is also important as one rider may be able to do 80% of their Critical Power (CP) without going above the first lactate threshold (LT1) while another rider may exceed LT1 at 70% of CP, so endurance sessions need to be individually tailored.
Bunch handling skills
For those of us doing any sort of bunch event, learning bunch handling is an incredibly important skill. It will allow you to travel faster while using less energy! A lot of this comes down to confidence in your own handling, but is also something that we can offer you advice on and why we are big fans of integrating group training sessions into your training plan.
The local club rides are probably the best place to start with honing your bunch riding abilities. Riding in a group, you can become more confident in following the wheel of the rider in front of you. Riding a couple of meters off the back of the rider in front can result in you using a lot more energy than if you are within a meter of their rear wheel. Riding in closer proximities is also essential for feeling confident when riding within a bunch during a road race when travelling at speed. It can also be helpful following other riders when descending, as if they are confident in their capabilities, you can follow their wheel and gain confidence in your own ability to corner faster. It’s amazing how far a bike can lean and stay planted when you corner correctly!
Once you’re comfortable with the more endurance pace club rides, you can move onto race pace rides. These help you hone the skills you’ve learnt at speed while also acting as a nice little race simulation in training. They also often include more focussed bunch riding dynamics such as ‘through and off’. When done well, this can increase the speed a bunch of riders are capable of by a huge amount! Essentially two lines of riders travel at a set speed/pace (for the sake of this example it is a flat windless road) with line A (through line on the side without wind) travelling slightly faster than line B (off line on the side the crosswind is coming from). So A may be travelling at 40kph while B is at 35kph. So our Rider is in the A line going at 40kph, they pull over to the B line and ease off the power and let the air resistance slow them down so that they come into B at about 35kph and slot in front of the rider who was leading B. Our Rider then saves energy while in the B line for as long as they are making an effort in the A line. Once the final rider of the A line passes, the Rider must accelerate up to 40kph and straight onto the wheel of the rider in front of them in A. They can then save energy still in the wheels, until they hit the front where they need to do maybe a 10sec efforts. The process then repeats, and the Rider has made 5 seconds of effort to accelerate and 10 seconds of efforts in the wind, the rest of the time they have saved energy by being in the wheels. So the whole group will be travelling at the pace every rider has had to do for 10 seconds at a time, making it very efficient!
Nutrition Periodisation is the fancy term, but timing and quantity of fuel intake makes a big difference. Again, fairly basic, but can often be done incorrectly or sub-optimally. As covering this whole topic would need a long post of it’s own, we’re going to focus on carbs before, during and after exercise.
Before a ride, even if just an endurance one at a lower pace but a longe duration, it is still important to consume carbohydrates as even at an easy endurance pace we are likely still using carbs along with fats, and not consuming enough of them during the ride means we have to play catch up afterwards which is not as efficient, or we are not topping up our muscle glycogen stores for the training the next day. Unless you’re doing specific low carb low intensity training, something that should be limited, then carbs before training will be better for performance, recovery, and overall energy availability.
During a ride, the amount of carbs required depends on both the duration and the intensity. If less than 90 minutes then generally no exogenous (carbs consumed externally not from muscle glycogen) are needed, but exceptions apply depending on the individual. If doing longer duration or higher intensity, then exogenous carbs will need to be consumed. The amount of carbs required depends on biological sex, menstrual phase, gastrointestinal (GI) tolerances, temperature, altitude and a multitude of factors. For example, when it is warmer we use more carbohydrates, same with higher altitude. Women use more carbs during the follicular phase and more fat during the luteal phase. People with a higher GI tolerance can consume up to 120+g of carbs an hour, whereas those who haven’t done GI training will maybe only manage 40g/hr.
After a ride, carbs are again required. We all know protein post workout is needed for muscle and tissue recovery/turnover, but consuming with carbohydrates can help the effectiveness of the protein consumed as well as resulting in the carbohydrates being directed to muscle stores as glycogen than being stored as fat. This is because post exercise the insulin response is different to at rest, so the transport and use of carbohydrates is different. Generally a 3:1 ratio of carbs to protein is ideal for recovery, but this will vary for some people.
Strength and conditioning
We’ve seen this more recently, with pro cyclists hitting the gym over the winter. But there are gains to be made by incorporating S&C work all the way through the year. It is also important to make sure that you are not doing too much or the wrong sorts of exercises at the wrong time at the gym.
S&C has been shown to increase both the maximal power output of cyclists in sprint performances, as well as improving time trial performance and time to exhaustion. There are several ways these benefits occur, with greater neuromuscular recruitment for sprint performance, as well as improved Type 2 fibre usage during endurance so reduce the onset of fatigue, to improving the functional range of motion that you can output power (think the top of the pedal stroke traditionally being the ‘dead spot’).
It is important though to do the right amount of work at the right time. As S&C work when you start is a new stimulus, you will almost certainly experiment delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which is also why keeping it all year is helpful in that DOMS will not be an issue if you train right. It is also common for cyclists to do too much too soon. Cyclists are very strong aerobically and also muscularly when contractions are concentric (force being produced when the muscle is shortening). Where cyclists are not as strong is during eccentric contractions (force produced while the muscle lengthens), in bone density more often than not, and ligament & tendon strength. So going straight into plyometric work will almost certainly result in injury, and heavy strength work with a long eccentric phase can damage the muscles.
A fear for cyclists when doing S&C is also muscle growth. If muscle growth was as easy as they think, body builders around the world would be envious! In reality, building muscle is not an easy or straightforward process. It requires a large intake of protein, a calorie surplus, and training the right reps at the right rep range to the right level of fatigue. For cyclists, the rep range worked at will often be higher with a lower weight for range of motion and stability work, or it will be higher weights at lower reps for strength, or low weight at low reps with high speed for power. The same exercise done in different ways can result in very different results!
Aero position and clothing
As cyclists, the biggest force we have to overcome when riding pretty much all the time is air resistance. On the flats at most training speeds maybe 80% of our effort goes to overcoming air resistance on the flats, at race pace it’s more than 90%! Even on climbs up to 5% gradient it makes up a lot of what we have to overcome, and aero savings without adding weight will still save some time on gradients above 5%. So by decreasing the impact of air resistance on us, we can increase out speed significantly for the same power output!
Although aero frames and wheels will save you watts and increase your speed, the bike as a whole only makes up about 20% of the total drag that you experiment, the other 80% comes from your body, so focussing on making that a aerodynamic as possible will result in the biggest gains!
Position on the bike makes one of the biggest differences. We can see it in the way riders race now that they have narrower handlebars to make them narrower, and will ride with their forearms horizontal on the tops rather than straight armed as this has been tested in the wind tunnel to be faster. However riding in that position needs to be sustainable, which can be achieved by spending more focussed time during training riding in that position, and also doing specific S&C work to improve muscular weaknesses that are reducing your ability to maintain and sustain and aerodynamic position. Another factor to consider is that even if you go for a super slung out low pro position, you may not be able to produce as much power so the watts/CdA equation doesn’t change or gets worse. Again, training in the position and S&C work to help eliminate those issues reducing power output can help, but sometimes biomechanical constraints are too much and the right balance of power production and drag reduction need to be achieved.
Next up we have aero clothing. Nowadays in races pretty much everyone is using aero socks and aero jerseys/skinsuits. Some purists call this sacrilege but at the end of the day, it is undeniably faster. Choosing kit that fits closely to reduce the amount flapping in the wind will help save watts, but also making sure the kit isn’t too tight. Once a skinsuit is too tight, it changes the surface texture of the fabric, which in turn can increase friction and therefore increase drag from the rider. This is why getting the right size in kit is very important, and going for the smallest shrink wrapped size possible isn’t necessarily going to make you faster! It is also worth considering that different skinsuits may be faster on different people. Fortunately, if you want to test either your position or different aero clothing to see what is fastest on you, you can get wind tunnel testing done with us at the Silverstone Sports Engineering Hub.
So there we have it, 5 sure-fire ways to make you faster on the bike, and at ATP Performance, we specialise in supporting you across every one of these points. From programming individualised training programmes designed specifically around you, to offering equipment and bunch riding advice and testing to maximise energy saved while riding. Drop us a message if you’re interested in coaching, wind tunnel testing, or would like to find out more.