"Efficiency and energy conservation are keys to faster cycling."
Have you ever experienced riding behind an accomplished road cyclist or mountain biker and marveled at the smooth, effortless and fluid manner in which they pedal the bike? As with anything in life, those who excel in a particular area make it look "easy," and we tend to forget the hours and hours of time and effort that went into perfecting their craft.
To the average person, pedaling a bike might seem like an activity that requires little skill or technique development. This is far from the truth, however, for the competitive cyclist or triathlete who depend on efficiency and energy conservation in order to generate maximum velocity at the lowest possible metabolic cost.
As with any skill set, the more you practice good form and technique and ingrain those movement patterns into your neuromuscular pathways, the more you are likely to perform at a higher level on race day. There are several things to think about when the goal is to improve your cycling efficiency. I've listed a few of them below for your consideration.
- Bike Fit: The lightest, coolest and most expensive bike on the block doesn't mean a hill of beans if it doesn't fit you properly. Saddle height, fore and aft position, reach to the handlebar, cleat position on your shoes and even crank length will all play a factor in your pedaling efficiency.
- Aerodynamics vs. Power: This is an age old question that all triathletes must deal with at one time or another. Cycling fans might remember Miguel Indurain (i.e. "Big Mig") time trialing in the TDF(Tour de France) on his steel Pinarello bike almost looking as if he was sitting upright on his aero bars. On the other end of the spectrum was Hour Record Holder, Chris Boardman, the creator of the now-banned "superman" position, which stretched him out on the aerobars as if he were flying, cutting a hole in the wind while low to the ground. Big Mig chose to produce more power instead of trying to get his 6'2" frame lower to the ground in an aerodynamic tuck; whereas Boardman leveraged his smaller stature and flexibility to maximize his aerodynamics. During your bike fit, determine what's best for you in terms of power output and comfort or aerodynamics.
- Cadence Range: Let's face it... some athletes are "mashers" and some are "spinners." Research shows that most inexperienced cyclists tend to pedal bigger gears at lower cadences in contrast to more experienced riders who tend to pedal at higher cadences (85-95 RPM or Revolutions Per Minute). Former TDF champ and Team Telecom Rider, Jan Ullrich of Germany, was famous for mashing a huge gear-inch as he blasted to 30+ mph average speeds during Time Trials, earning him the description as a "Diesel Engine." Seven-time TDF winner, Lance Armstrong, proved that riding with an exceptionally high cadence of 100+ RPM was a good way to race a bike and win. Different athletes, different riding styles. I encourage most athletes to find a middle ground and typically, a cadence range of 80-90 RPM works best as a "sweet spot."
- Drill, Drill, Drill: Perfect practice makes perfect. Every time you go out for a ride, think of good form. Focus on a fluid pedaling action with a relaxed upper body and a flat back. As the road tilts up or as you ride into a head wind, think about pulling back and up a little more, using the entire pedal stroke, which serves to unweight the opposing leg. Allow for your knees to track naturally over the pedal spindle and not to splay out. Incorporate high cadence drills of 20-30 seconds at 110+ RPM into your weekly training plan. Get very comfortable riding on your aerobars for hours on end.
I encourage every serious cyclist and triathlete to invest time and energy into improving their technique and efficiency by using the ideas listed in this article. You'll be very pleased with the results come race day!
For several excellent indoor trainer cycling workouts designed to improve skill and technique, check out www.spinervals.com and in particular, Spinervals 38.0 - Develop Technique and Power