Ask most cyclists/triathletes what is needed to train for the bike portion of a triathlon, and almost unanimously the reply will be power. Nope. To buy a bike, have a bike fit, and progress immediately to training power, is no different then buying a guitar, buying the score to a Jimi Hendrix song and believing that you have the skill level and ability to play the song, and for it to sound anything close to Hendrix. Its one thing to look the part, its an entirely different thing to actually be able to execute a specific skill consistently, with ease, at will.
To be able to generate and sustain power is the byproduct of an athlete being able to execute fundamental skills. The following are the skills required by cyclists & triathletes who are pursuing their potential:
Aerodynamics come primarily from the athlete having the flexibility to obtain optimal positioning, aero equipment is secondary as it offers only incremental benefit. The article “aero is everything” and the accompanying chart posted at Triathlon Magazine Canada proves the point. Equipment (i.e. wheels, helmet, skin suit) has an impact on aerodynamics; but the impact of flexibility is as great as 10x that provided by aero equipment. Improving flexibility allows an athlete to progress from an average aero position, to an advanced position, and ultimately to a pro position (like Kinley Gibson’s), reducing drag by as much as 27% (vs e.g. aero rims @ 2%).
Winner of the Junior Men’s Omnium at the 2016 Milton International Challenge, Thierry Marcassa in the Points Race lapped the field scoring 20 points, and scored another 5 points at one of the sprints while riding a bike with regular spoke wheels against competitors riding discs, carbon fiber 5 spoke or deep rimmed wheels. It is not like Spike Lee used to say in Nike commercials that “its gotta be the shoes“; equipment does not make the athlete. Its the athlete (e.g. Michael Jordan) who makes the equipment special. Aero equipment doesn’t make a cyclist fast, its the flexible cyclist who makes an aero bike go fast, set blistering speeds, set track and road time trial records.
Pedal Stroke Biomechanics
How the pedal stroke is generated is key to efficiency and to peak power. Training the legs to generate power, to act as pistons, to grind hard is not efficient. The pedal stroke must start higher up the chain, with power being transferred into the drive shaft (i.e. the spine) then into the hips, with the hips and lower extremities supercharging the stroke.
Efficient technique which is agile, balanced, and coordinated does not arise from the hips or legs; therefore, to train a pedal stroke from the hips or below is simply leaving the athlete’s true power untapped. Plus, it leaves the athlete with ‘dead’ legs for the sprint to the finish line of a cycling road race or for the run portion of a triathlon.
Training an efficient powerful pedal stroke is fundamental to achieving peak performance. It often requires athletes to learn how to ride from scratch, but the outcome is a cruise speed, a top speed, and a peak power output level that can not be matched through any other upgrade be it biomechanical, aerodynamic or decrease in equipment weight.
Formula One race cars have 8 gears, today’s road bikes typically have 18 to 20 gears, but the top of the top cyclists do not depend on their bikes, they have their own “gears”. Track bikes have only one gear, so it is the cyclist who must be able to change gears (i.e. change cadence) smoothly, seamlessly, and effortlessly in order to accelerate, attack, and sprint to seize opportunities that lead to victory. To achieve your potential as a cyclist and/or triathlete, developing a wide cadence range is fundamental to producing sustainable power.
Note: the cyclist in the video is warming up on rollers for a track event, and to prepare for her event lifts her cadence to a rate exceeding 200 rpm (rotations per minute). Interestingly, Usain Bolt’s cadence also exceeds 200 at his top end, and a swimmers 6-beat kick can exceed 300rpm. Stuck below 100 rpm as a cyclist? Then having difficulty with speed across all sports is no surprise.
Balance and Core Conditioning
The more energy and effort that has to go into keeping a cyclist vertical, the less energy and effort is available to move the cyclist forward. The compensation made by novice and intermediate/sport riders is that they have to keep pedaling to remain vertical. By not knowing how to conserve energy, how to use their core to balance and how to use ground reaction forces to sustain momentum, or generate momentum without pedaling leads to fatigue, dwindling speed and endurance, leaving the athlete with dead legs for the run portion of a triathlon. Triathletes like to say that the legs need to be saved in the swim for the biking, but fail to consider that its the cyclist who expends the least amount of energy in the bike portion who has the legs to run. What would be your run split in a triathlon, if you ‘saved’ the legs in the swim and on the bike?
Once the pieces are in place, then its about putting them together: flexibility, plus agility, plus balance, plus core conditioning, coordinated into a set of skills allows the athlete to handle their bike with an uncanny level of efficiency, resulting in minimal energy being wasted. On the other hand, if energy is spent fighting fatigue from the aero position, from constantly accelerating & decelerating to match a limited range of cadence to bike gears to terrain/wind & weather conditions, while using the core to maintain balance more than to initiate cycling technique… is it any wonder why generating greater and greater amounts of power or sustaining power proves elusive?
Playing the guitar louder won’t make you sound more like Hendrix. Playing the guitar well, will.
Riding harder, grinding a bigger chain ring won’t make you a better cyclist. Riding smarter, will.
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Additional articles on the topic and importance of cycling technique: