Learn how to improve your cycling from one of the sport’s best cyclists, Jillian Petersen.

Jillian Petersen is one of the strongest cyclists on the ITU and non-draft short course circuits, often turning in the fastest or nearly the fastest bike split in races such as the Miami International Triathlon, St. Anthony’s Triathlon and the Chicago Triathlon. (In fact, she’s been known to out-bike Sarah Haskins, one of the strongest cyclists in the sport.) But Petersen didn’t start her triathlon career as a great cyclist. A runner and swimmer in high school, Petersen ran cross-country and track at the University of Missouri and only started biking in late 2005.

Petersen is one of the fastest female cyclists on the ITU circuit. Photo: Triathlon.org

Petersen was kind enough to give us some tips on how to improve your cycling and become the best cyclist you can be.

Rule No. 1: The best way to get fast on the bike is spend time in the saddle.

There are no real shortcuts to becoming a better cyclist—you simply have to get your bum on the saddle. “The longer I spent on the bike, the faster I got,” Petersen said. But don’t think that your cycling strength is going to materialize overnight. “It took me, I want to say, at least two full years to really get a good handle on the strength side of cycling,” Petersen said.

Rule No. 2: Join a group ride

When Petersen first started out in the sport, she did at least one group ride a week, which not only helped her improve her fitness but also helped her improve her bike handling skills. In fact, group rides are one of the only ways that you can improve your bike handling skills, something that can save you upwards of 90 seconds on a technical 40K course, Petersen estimates. “Just getting the experience and being around people and having those quick movements gets you more comfortable,” Petersen said. Group rides also help you get used to riding at speeds that you could never reach by yourself without the help of a draft.

Rule No. 3: When you do join a group ride, follow the rules of the roadies.

Cyclists are known to have a less-than-friendly attitude toward triathletes, which means if you want to seamlessly join a group of roadies, you have to follow their rules. This especially means that you should never show up to a group ride with your tri bike, which is more difficult to handle than a road bike and can be dangerous in large groups.

Once you get the hang of the unspoken rules of the roadies, remember to have fun (most cyclists are actually nice) and ignore the more surly ones. “Every now and then I’d have a breakthrough day and make the front group for an extremely hard finish of the ride and then get yelled at,” Petersen said. “ [They’d say,] ‘This wasn’t hard—that’s why she stayed with us.’ But take it with a grain of salt and brush those guys off.”

Rule No. 4: Ride with people who are faster than you.

Petersen used her cycling skills to take the Miami International Triathlon victory. Photo: Jeff Sanzare

Petersen quickly improved her cycling by riding several times a week with a few guys who were speedier than she was. “They would go on these very difficult, hilly, technical rides,” Petersen said, and she would have to ride her best just to stay up with them. These rides would last anywhere from about two to three hours.

Rule No. 5: Keep the speedwork up on your run while you focus on the bike.

Spending more time on the bike inevitably means you’ll have to back off on your run, which can ultimately hurt your run split. Petersen says that focusing your limited running time on speedwork will help you keep your running legs underneath you while you work to improve your cycling. “Speedwork would help, because you’re getting so much endurance from the bike,” Petersen said.

Rule No. 6: Do strength work on your hamstrings

Cyclists can develop big quads and this can create an imbalance with your hamstrings, so Petersen recommends that you focus on doing strength work on your hamstrings to limit this asymmetry. She does many of her hamstring exercises with a physio ball—a large rubber inflatable ball often seen in physical therapy offices.

Rule No. 7: Ride easy in the winter months

During the winter months, don’t go crazy with your riding. “Just go out and ride, and you’re going to be fine,” Petersen said.

Rule No. 8: Don’t be afraid to get in some brick workouts

Petersen will sometimes bring her trainer to the pool deck and do a hard 500M followed by 3 minutes hard on her bike. (She’ll do this three or four times in a row.) Or, she’ll do a bike-to-run workout where she’ll ride eight-to-10 minutes hard and then run a hard 1K off the bike, repeating this three to four times.

Rule No. 9: Practice your descending and cornering skills

“I’ll go on some difficult descents and practice cornering and leaning,” Petersen said. She does this on her own, away from a group.

Rule No. 10: Don’t be afraid to back off once your cycling is where you want it to be.

“I definitely do less riding than I used to,” Petersen said. “I think it’s because I got a couple of good years of a lot more riding.” Currently, she rides about five times a week, with two of the days being hard (one being a tempo workout and one being a VO2-max workout, generally on hills) and one of these days being long (usually about three hours.) The other two days are just easy 1.5-hour rides.