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Want to be the fastest cyclist you can be? Use these tips from one of triathlon’s greatest.
This article was originally published in the July/August 2011 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.
It was one of those early spring days. The sun was out for the first time in months, shining from a clear blue sky. It was still cold, with the temperature just creeping above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, but the air had the crisp freshness you only find when the winter has finally given way to spring. I was 10 days away from my first race of the year and aboard my time-trial bike for a final test—a double TT session on one of my favorite training courses close to my home. It was an 18.1-mile loop of undulating terrain on uninterrupted roads in the Danish countryside. I knew the course like the back of my hand. I had done it hundreds of times and knew exactly which line to take around every corner whether it was wet or dry. I knew which gear to push over every hill relative to my fitness, speed and freshness for the day. Over the previous several years, I had written down numerous splits and power and heart rate data during all kinds of weather and could recite most of them without blinking, giving me intuitive and exact feedback on my performance at any given place on the course.
After an hour warm-up, I did one lap at my estimated half-iron pace, as this was the race distance for which I was preparing. Despite the cold weather I made it in 43:33 and felt very comfortable, averaging just over 25 mph. After a 15-minute spin, I prepared for the second loop, which was my actual test for the day—one lap all-out. I stripped my pockets, dropped my wind vest and only carried a small bottle of water.
I felt good and started aggressively up the first hill. My legs opened immediately, and I continued pushing over the hill and down the other side. My legs were turning faster and faster. I felt the power from my entire body transferring into the pedals. My upper body was steady despite the force generated from each stroke, my glutes fully firing in synchrony with my quads and calves. It almost felt like I was riding on top of the pedals, like there were no dead spots in my pedal strokes, and I could just turn and turn no matter how high a gear I chose. The road disappeared quickly beneath me, and the asphalt transformed into a gray mass. The wind was whirring past my ears, and I settled into a rhythm at the very top end of my ability, guided by my subconscious sense of it being one of those special days. I stormed through the halfway point in a blistering split yet continued to search for the sweet spot with my gears. The final stretch of road was straight, with no corners but a few significant hills. I was tired but able to let it all go, powering over each hill—stretching myself to my limit—before hitting the descents in my most aerodynamic tuck. Despite my fatigue, my body and legs were still working in symmetry—flowing. I put it all on the line up the last hill and sprinted the final kilometer of the loop. My watch said 41:07, which was my personal best split by far in cold and windy conditions. I had just experienced uberbiking!
Each generation of triathletes has a select group of individuals with the right mind and body to go the distance on the bike in the biggest and most important races. Thomas Hellriegel, Jurgen Zack, Normann Stadler, Chris Lieto and myself are all examples of such uberbikers—guys whose weapon of choice was and is the bike. We are not afraid of getting wind in our noses and have all boldly made moves early in many important races, becoming the sole focus of the fleet-footed chasers.
But what does it take to be out there all alone coming into T2—to become so powerful on a bike that you can literally leave everyone else in the dust?
A Viking’s Tale
My native Denmark is a cyclist’s paradise. There are bike paths everywhere and miles of quiet roads with little or no traffic just a few steps from any front door. I grew up in a town with separated traffic, where there were long systems of paths that were safe for kids to ride on to and from school, a friend’s house, a soccer field or a swimming pool. We did not own a car and hence had to bike everywhere—my mother once took me to the hospital in a bike trailer to get the cast from a broken leg removed. My leg was sticking out of the trailer, up in the air, for the entire journey. During summers we would often go on longer bike trips around Denmark as a family, and once we even biked for three weeks in France. Like the east Africans who get to where they need to go by running, we biked to get around.
I took up triathlon at age 14, in 1990, after two years of competitive swimming. My tri club was 7 miles away, and on top of my long Sunday rides and occasional weekday time trials, I always biked to swim and run practice. My mom and dad split when I was a young kid, but we still visited my dad every other weekend, and I often biked the 50 miles back and forth. During one of the first summers after I became a triathlete, I biked 70 miles to a city where we would spend a vacation. It was the first time I ever bonked. There was a severe headwind during the entire journey and the final 10 miles were over wide-open terrain. I was still far from mentally skilled in the art of suffering, and I was so tired that I cried for the full 10 miles. But I got through them. I had to—there were no cars, no cell phones, no gas stations and no dear mum.
At the age of 18 I took part in a study at the University of Copenhagen where scientists measured my VO2max, which was well into the 70s. (The average VO2max for a healthy young male is 45.) Despite my young age, I was already keenly interested in exercise physiology, and I knew that such a high VO2max was largely genetically determined and a sign of big potential. I was convinced that other elements of peak performance such as technique, tactics, mental toughness and nutrition could be developed, so my high VO2max sparked a belief in my own ability that lasted throughout my career.
My development, however, took longer than I expected, and I spent many years learning how to train. It was not until after I was selected for the ITU Long Distance Triathlon World Championships in 1998 that I was able to endure the pain and develop the discipline needed to train consistently on an elite level. After being selected for the Danish national team, led by Gabor Kløczl, I quickly got absorbed in the group environment around him and the big Danish star at that time, fellow uberbiker Peter Sandvang. Kløczl’s philosophy is one of the secrets to my bike skills: intense training. He believed in intensity over volume and that the training should be race-specific almost year-round. We did two time trials of anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes every Tuesday and Thursday. Each time trial was literally an all-out race with a self-enforced 10-meter non-drafting rule and a handicapped start based on the previous week’s performances. At the time, the day-to-day ability levels of me, Sandvang and a fellow teammate named Allan Månsson were virtually identical, which made for a fiercely competitive environment.
On top of the weekday time trials, we did a Sunday ride—68 brutal miles where we would average more than 27 miles per hour despite stopping at traffic lights and sometimes holding back for slower traffic in front of us. Only the toughest triathletes, Cat. 1 and ex-pro riders could hang with us until the end, and many skilled riders had sore legs for days after attending our 2.5-hour maximal effort session.
While the volume we did was unexceptional, the intensity and extremely competitive setting taught me how to suffer, which is something I used when I began to train on my own and is a key skill for anyone striving to become a great triathlete. After the early days with the Danish national team, I only very rarely sat behind anyone. I took pride in getting wind in my nose. I also took pride in training in the worst possible conditions, such as wintertime in Denmark or on the rough, hilly roads of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, where I spent many weeks each winter for several years. In early 2003, my career took a turn for the better, and I became increasingly more focused and professional in my attitude toward the sport. By then, Kløczl had left the federation and was replaced by Michael Krüger, who introduced me to the German method of high-volume training. For the first time in my career, I broke 30 hours of training in a week. I did most of it in the saddle, and the countless hours made me begin to feel like I was living on my bike. I often found myself going through the morning routines with the family in a haze, not fully awake until I was an hour into yet another five-hour ride.
This high-volume regime helped transfer the speed I developed with Kløczl’s intense program to longer distances, and it kick-started a string of significant victories—victories that were won on the bike—including the ETU Long Distance Triathlon European Championships in 2003 in Fredericia, Denmark, and the ITU Long Distance Triathlon World Championships in Sater, Sweden, in 2004.
In 2003 I also formulated the goal of winning the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, and started working with mental coach Lars Nielsen, who was a former rower and peak performance specialist. He helped break down, in the tiniest details, what it would take to win, which gave me a very clear idea of the race I would need to have and the work it would require. I believed that becoming the best triathlete in the world meant that I needed to become the best at every little aspect of the game. I needed to train the hardest, create the best team around me, eat better than everyone, become the strongest mentally, have the best equipment, the most aerodynamic position—the list goes on. No detail was too small, and I worked under the motto that even though Ironman is an eight-hour race, I only needed a single second to win.
From 2003 until 2007, I honed my bike skills (as well as my swim and run skills) with the iron distance in mind. My time trials became longer, and I routinely suffered through five- to seven-hour rides at a very high average pace. I went to the wind tunnel and perfected my position. I tested every piece of equipment and every new training method that could potentially give me an advantage. I even started developing my own equipment if I felt I could build something better than what was currently available on the market.
While I never reached my goal of becoming the Ironman world champion before I was forced to retire from the sport in 2009 due to a heart valve abnormality, I did break the bike course record in Kona in 2005—my split of 4:21:35 is still the second-fastest split of all time—and I finished on the podium, in third, in 2007.
When striving for excellence, there is no magic pill. Sure, the latest aero wheels and a teardrop helmet are important, but becoming really fast on the bike is a long process that occurs over many years and demands endless hours of hard work, sound logic applied without compromise, and a strong belief in your own ability. While superb genetics are needed to get to the top end of the sport, anyone can work on improving cycling skills—no matter who you are and what your inherent ability is. Below are some of the things I have learned over the years that can help you drop some time off your bike split and become the best cyclist you are capable of becoming.
Uberbiking requires a blend of high aerobic power (VO2max), endurance and strength, so it is important to gauge which one of these aspects is your limiter and then work mercilessly to improve it.
Your maximal aerobic power is largely determined by your genetics, but it can be improved with a focused effort over long periods of time. If your engine is a bit small and you have a subpar VO2max, spend a couple of winters focusing on interval sets. Twice weekly, do four to six intervals of three to five minutes on the bike, recovering between each interval by spinning for at least three minutes. Try to do each interval on the same loop or on a trainer so you can measure your progress from session to session. If you are fit, you will need to take yourself to your limit by the end of each interval, finishing each with a heart rate close to max effort for the workout to have an effect on your maximal aerobic power.
Even if you don’t have much spare time on your hands to build endurance, you can get a near maximal training effect from just three hours of cycling per week. Three times per week, start with a 15-minute warm-up and then do a 30-minute time trial, followed by a 15-minute cool-down. This time trial should be hard and you will need to suffer, but you will see improvement to your fitness, even after just a few weeks. Just make sure you put in an extremely solid effort for each of those 30-minute time trials.
If you are preparing for an Ironman, the same rule applies: Make sure every minute counts. If you cannot find the time to cycle five to six hours every weekend, go for three hours at iron-distance pace. This type of training is very effective at providing the stimulus you will need to perform the best you can at your iron-distance race. If you instill these three-hour training sessions into your program you will only need to do a few select long rides before your goal race—done simply to build your confidence.
Strength is a component of cycling that’s sometimes overlooked. To push in excess of 400 watts for an hour, or more than 300 watts for 4.5 hours, you need to be able to push a significant load with every pedal stroke. That’s why many of the greatest cyclists in the sport have had sizable glutes and the characteristic “tree trunk” quads.
The best way to develop this strength is through what the Germans call “kraftausdauer,” or strength endurance training. By pushing high gears at 40 to 60 rpm and moderate to high loads over various interval distances, you can develop your ability to handle the force component in higher-intensity riding. For example, during your longer ride on the weekend, try putting in two to three uphill or headwind segments where you spend 10 to 20 minutes at moderate intensity, using a high enough gear that you can only pedal 50 to 60 rpm. This will help you build the strength that is required to be a good climber. During more intense workouts during the week, you can work on your strength by doing three to six 5-minute intervals at a high intensity and in a gear that only allows you to pedal 50 to 60 rpm. You can also boost your strength by doing 10 15- to 30-second intervals uphill, all-out, at a gear so high you can only pedal 40 to 50 rpm.
But remember that if you are looking to build strength, you must do so gradually, as strength endurance training puts a load on your hips and knees that is much greater than when you are cycling at a normal cadence. To get the maximal benefit out of your strength training, work up to adding strength elements into two of your weekly high-intensity or Ironman-focused sessions.
If you belong to the sprightly runner section of the tri demographic and are searching for more bike power, try hitting the gym in the off-season to work on your max strength, as this will be great preparation for pushing those bigger gears. Additionally, cyclists of all shapes and sizes will benefit from workouts on core strength, as this will help them stabilize their pedal stroke and use the force from their legs more effectively.
No matter what the limiting factors are to your cycling, you will need to challenge yourself if you want to improve. Go harder or longer than you ever have before and you will see results—as long as you pay attention to the fine art of balancing training with recovery.
Aerodynamics and position
When biking at higher speeds, 80 percent or more of your energy is used to overcome wind resistance—this makes aerodynamics a key factor in cycling success, and it’s why leading cyclists and triathletes spend hours in the wind tunnel perfecting their aero positions. For many, this wind tunnel time can break the bank, but a basic knowledge of aerodynamics, which can be learned with a little research, a trainer and a camera, can take you very far in perfecting your aero position.
My own wind tunnel experiences have given me insights into my aero position, but not in the way you might expect. During my first wind tunnel fit, in 2005, we tinkered with my position by moving my handlebars down, pushing my elbows together and stretching my arms a bit more, but nothing really helped until I accidentally dipped my head down in front of my shoulders midway during a test run. My drag numbers immediately dropped significantly to a level that would give me a three- to four-minute savings over 112 miles—not too bad for just lowering my head. At another point during the test, we set my elbow pads so close together that I started to wobble, and the bike going side to side made the drag numbers go through the roof.
These two experiences taught me that positioning was not so much about how my bike was set up but rather how I acted on the bike. From that point on, I called how I acted on the bike “dynamic positioning,” and I used what I learned from my wind tunnel experiences to the fullest extent possible. In every race I would put my head down, tuck my shoulders in and make sure I had aerobar extensions long enough so I could stretch forward when I was riding downhill, optimizing my aero position when it was most effective and important. I made sure my helmet lay flat on my back at all times and concentrated on riding in a straight line, which again helped me cut drag without buying a single piece of equipment or loosening one screw on my bike.
RELATED: Mix Up Your Cycling Efforts To Become A Better Rider
In recent years the bike industry has gone nuts with drag, and there are numerous papers and studies published from subjective sources that claim to have discovered the be-all, end-all when it comes to aerodynamics. While significant gains have been made in the industry, they often distract from other areas of equal importance to the would-be uberbiker, such as bike-handling skills. If you have ever gone down a hairpin descent or a roundabout with a pro roadie, you know what I’m talking about, as the difference between a great and a poor bike handler easily amounts to five to 10 seconds per corner. On technical courses, the importance of feeling at one with your bike, of knowing how to cut corners by virtue of what you feel and not what you think, can save you several minutes. In 2002, I lost the ITU Long Distance World Championships to one of the nicest athletes I know, Cyrille Neveu, who now runs the Alpe d’Huez Triathlon. While Neveu is definitely a great rider, he never really reached uberbiker status, and yet during the 2002 Long Distance World Championships on a mountainous course in Nice, France, he was able to take seven minutes out of a bunch of equally strong and stronger riders through his superb descending skills. These were skills he had learned while riding his bike in the Alps.
Bike-handling skills can be taught to some extent, but they are best learned with practice. When cornering, a cyclist must choose the line that will catapult him or her out of the corner relative to riders who aren’t as skilled at cornering. Usually, by going in wide, then cutting narrowly into the corner, and then exiting wide, a cyclist can achieve this catapult effect. In other words, the line you are following is a relatively flat arc compared to the arc of the corner. The maximal speed you can travel along this line without crashing is determined by things such as road surface, tire choice, bike fit and geometry. But more importantly, the maximal speed you can travel along this line is also determined by how you position your body on the bike. Bringing your center of mass a bit forward and down when entering the turn, leaning your inner shoulder into and forward in the corner as well as popping out your inner knee as an air-brake will usually give you the best result. If you decide you want to learn how to corner, you should first practice the skill in an empty parking lot or on a deserted street before trying it in a group ride or during a race. You might also search out the help of a good, technical rider, because no matter how much you read about cornering, the quickest way to learn the skill is to follow the line of someone who excels at it.
The debate about choosing the most efficient cadence has been ongoing for many years. Studies in physiology tell us that a lower cadence—about 60 to 70 rpm at moderate workloads—is the most energy efficient, and yet many triathletes race the iron distance with 80 to 90 rpm. Along those same lines, Lance Armstrong’s extremely high cadence—often upward of 110 rpm—baffled the scientific community during his seven straight Tour de France wins.
I believe this inconsistency between science and practice has to do with strength and acceleration. There is a big difference between pedaling on an ergometer in a lab and riding in a peloton on undulating roads, where you need to constantly accelerate or decelerate in response to other riders, the course and the terrain. Acceleration at lower cadences occurs less rapidly and requires far more muscle force than accelerating at a higher cadence. So while a lower cadence of 60 to 70 rpm is more energy efficient, if you are accelerating at all while you ride—which you almost certainly are—accelerating at a lower cadence also saps the strength you need to run once you get off the bike. To get an idea of the difference between strength fatigue and energy fatigue and why you need to worry about it, imagine going to the gym and doing three sets of 10 squats at your max weight. You aren’t going to use much energy doing this, but you are going to sap your muscle strength and break down muscle fibers, making it very difficult to run well after you’ve finished the workout.
Thus, in triathlon, finding the right cadence is a balance between strength and energy efficiency. You cannot go too low, as it will drain the strength you need to run, and you cannot go too high, as it will deplete your energy stores too fast.
Other factors should also influence your cadence choice. According to a 2009 scientific review by Ernst Hansen and Gerald Smith in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, cadence has been shown to go up when workload, or power, increases, so you will most likely choose a higher cadence in a short time trial compared to your usual long training ride. Athletes with a high VO2max choose a higher cadence when riding at the same relative intensity as athletes with a lower VO2max, most likely because they push higher watts and thus need to ease the load on the legs. (This phenomenon partly explains why Armstrong chooses a higher cadence than the rest of us—he pushes higher watts.)
Very few athletes consider the impact of tactics on overall performance, yet accurate pacing can make or break your race. Even pros often ride the first half of an iron-distance bike leg at a significantly higher workload than the back half. Sometimes the difference can be as much as 50 watts, which equals a whopping 10 to 15 minutes. Part of this is due to a rarely well-enforced 10-meter non-drafting rule, but in many cases it is often a sign of misjudged pacing that costs triathletes dearly in the latter stages of a race. Holding an even effort over the entire course will save you precious fuel for the run that your impatient competitors won’t have.
Another element of tactics is to distribute your energy intelligently over the course of the race relative to wind resistance. When riding uphill, wind resistance is relatively low, but when riding downhill, resistance is high. Therefore, it is wise to use a bit more, but not too much, of your power going up hills and spend less on the way down, deliberately tucking into your best aero position as you do so to decrease the effect of the added wind resistance. Another little trick involving wind resistance is to limit your fluid intake to the uphill sections, as reaching for bottles or straws often involves subpar aerodynamics.
The hurt locker
Cycling is a tough sport. Not only do we use big muscle groups that enable us to ride at a high intensity for hours, but our muscles work concentrically, meaning they fatigue much less quickly than in weight-bearing sports such as running. This slowness to fatigue means that already-fit cyclists have to ride longer or harder to expose their muscles to new stimuli. This is why your ability to become an uberbiker is closely tied to your willingness to suffer.
While you can use this article’s tips to help you move toward your goal of becoming an uberbiker, remember that you must also train your ability to stay positive while you’re in pain and explore your physical limits. Goal setting and joining a stimulating training group can also improve your chances of becoming an uberbiker.
Have fun turning those cranks.
Sindballe was one of triathlon’s uberbikers when he was a pro. He is a contributing writer for Inside Triathlon.
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