Bike Handling Skills for Ironman Hawaii

In preparation for any triathlon, especially an athletes ‘A’ race, the opportunity exists to study, review, and train specifically for the challenges each aspect of the race will offer.

Since the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii is a target race for many triathletes, we can use it as a template of how to review a race to identify the bike handling skills an athlete requires to successfully complete the course, and the additional skills required if the goal is to be competitive.


Course Layout

The overview reveals that the start of the bike course is in town with several corners.  Although the technical difficulty is not high, the fact that this part of the course will likely be congested with athletes frantic from the chaos of T1, riding side by side while trying to get feet into shoes or hydrating suggests that one handed riding, one handed cornering and swerving are skills to master. With aide stations on the bike course, one handed riding will come in equally handy when reaching out for water bottles and when hydrating/eating out on the course.

With two 180 turnarounds, slow speed cornering should also be mastered along with efficient acceleration from sitting and standing positions.  The second turnaround in Hawi seems to be on a flat part of the course, but the terrain of the first turnaround is unclear due to the image of the cyclist overlaid on the course profile.  If the first turnaround occurs in ‘the pit’ or similar setting, then slow cornering on an incline/decline should not be overlooked.

Athletes need to allocate time specific to developing and training these skills as these are not gained by riding stationary trainers, in spinning classes, or in group rides.  No, this is not ‘hard’ training, but it is smart training.  It is training which is often overlooked as too simple, too rudimentary, but gaps in these simple skills often leads athletes to misjudge lines through corners on the bike, risking falls and injury.  Otherwise, a lack in bike handling skills can easily translate into exertion miscalculations resulting in athletes unable to race the run portion of the competition as they left too much out on the bike course.

Course Profile

Using the bike course profile athletes can anticipate what style of riding is required in order to master the course…

15konabike - profil

The bike course although televised as flat, is not dead flat.  The profile reveals an undulating landscape, add in the trade winds and those small undulations require planning.  Slight gradients like the 7 mile climb up into Hawi can be deceptive and if exertion is not paced well, then it can come back to haunt the athlete later in the bike, or in the run.

The profile of the course should also be used to decide on chain ring and cog sizes/pairings, especially if the athlete is considering a single chain ring system.  The linked article provides a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of one ring systems, and as with anything new… ensure that there is nothing new on race day.  All changes should be made well in advance of any competition with sufficient time to experiment, trouble shoot, and to assess if the changes are indeed effective towards achieving a desired outcome (i.e one month out from race day is the target to finalize equipment setup).

In reviewing prior years of the Ironman Championships, it is not uncommon for the pros to overexert themselves on the bike, either attempting to make up a deficit from the swim, or trying to create a gap ahead of the run only to misjudge their effort.  Even Ironman Champions such as Luc Van Lierde, Normann Stadler, Thomas Hellriegel and 8 time Ironman winner Paula Newby-Fraser have all miscalculated effort on the bike in one or more races.  If pros do it, then there isn’t an age group athlete that can claim to have mastered pacing and be exempt from improving this skill further.

With the advent of power meters, athletes such as Lionel Sanders approach races with wattage targets to hold exertion to trained, thus safe zones.  But competing as a pro is never that simple as Lionel shares in his blog: making up time lost to leaders on the swim, attacking to create a gap on the bike for the run, for how long and at what wattage to recover cannot be pre-planned as the actions of competitors cannot be predicted.  There is an art to competing: flexibility is required, ranges of ability are required and consistent peak performers do so by elevating their skills of introspection and emotional stability to that of an art-form, as science and power meter data have limits in usefulness.

Course Reconnaissance

Having a map is a definite plus, but taking the time to ride and drive the course repeatedly is performed by those athletes seeking to minimize the unexpected.  To maximize their chances of completing a downhill course with the fewest errors, thus to have the fastest time, alpine skiers take the time to memorize every turn, every bump, every change in terrain so later they can replay it, visualizing how they will take each turn, set up for the next.  Memorizing the bike course to know where strategic points exist carries the value of knowing where to attack so that an escape into the unknown can be made leveraging a physical effort to inflict not only a gap but doubt and confusion into the minds of competitors as to your position.  Equally, knowing strategic points provides insight into where competitors may try to pull a trick of their own.

Course Environmental Factors

Prior races of the Ironman World Championship are available on Youtube.  In reviewing the 25+ years of the event, an athlete will gain insight into the full range of conditions which they may experience, such as…

  • In 1990, the temperature on the Queen K highway hit 110+oF (45oC) for the bike and run portions of the race.
  • In 1993, it rained on the bike course around Hawi.
  • In 1998, athletes faced a 25mph head wind on the way out of Kona.
  • In 1999, cloud cover made for a cooler race and the typical head wind on the way out turned becoming a head wind on the way back as well.
  • In 2001, 60 mph – gale force – crosswinds caused 6 time Ironman Champion Dave Scott to withdraw and slowed the bike splits for the pros considerably, having a dramatic impact on race strategy as the effort required on the bike left athletes weary on the run.
  • In 2005, there was barely any wind on the bike and temperatures were cooler than average.
  • In 2006, Mark Allen stated that he never saw the conditions so cool and calm; there was virtually no wind at the start of the race, with even a little rain falling.  Then the trade winds blew onto Hawaii.  Michellie Jones knew that the ride into Hawi was going to be rough when she saw white caps develop on the ocean.  Crosswinds became so strong, that cyclists and their bikes were lifted up off the road and thrown.  If that wasn’t enough, during the marathon the temperature spiked.

Click on the image for a Youtube video on the Hawaiian Mumuku winds.

Mumuku winds1


Training Strategies for Ironman Hawaii

  1. Indoors – training on rollers where instead of using bike gears, the athlete uses their own ‘gears’ (i.e. ability to increase/decrease cadence) to ride across a variety of turnover ranges. Example: train repeats of 5 mins duration riding a 5 point cadence range (e.g. between 60-65), and then moving up to the next 5 point range, up until cadence skills are challenged, then come back down in the same pattern.  Add in a run afterwards and you have a brick variation of this session.  In fact, this one workout has unlimited potential as time spent in each range, size of ranges, jumps between ranges, starting and end points can all be varied to accomplish various objectives.
  2. Outdoors – training to ride one handed on stretches of rolling hills is important because it is required to hydrate and eat on this bike course.  Again, a head or cross wind should not be unexpected, nor should being in a pack of riders all veering with wind gusts where holding a straight line is challenging. If an athlete fails to replenish themselves on the bike because they lack the bike handling skills to do so, then they will pay the price.
  3. Drills – cone drills to practice swerving, obstacle avoidance, hard braking, and to refine line choices through corners are indispensable because counting on everyone else to stay clear out of your way is not a strategy.
  4. Finally, a specific effort should be made to train on days when the wind is howling. Head winds and cross winds are not only possible in Hawaii, but highly probable, and when the trade winds blow, they break even the pros.  Training to pace appropriately with windy conditions, training to learn how to angle and handle a bike with strong cross winds is not only a safety measure, it may prove to be the singular reason an athlete completes the bike course.


As a coach, I find that many athletes train for the distance of the each event, often at a single speed which they predict they will hold (irrespective of conditions, etc..), failing to consider, thus failing to train for any other dimension of the competition.  Inevitably, unknown factors arise. Athletes who have trained for all the known factors then have to manage only the inevitable unknowns. The fact that athletes participate in competitions without preparing for all possible known factors just doesn’t make sense.  Why invest so much time into training hard, when a bit of smart training can leverage your performance to significantly greater results (even more than a new piece of equipment).

Smart training allowed Michael Phelps to win the 200m Butterfly event in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, winning one of his 8 gold medals, and set a World Record.  His coach anticipated the possibility of his goggles falling off or filling up with water in competition, therefore he trained Michael to swim without goggles.  Without smart training, all of Michael’s hard training would likely not have resulted in this outcome.

4x Hawaii Ironman Champion, Chrissie Wellington shared that she prepares for all possible eventualities, and visualizes scenarios so that she will have not only the physical ability but the mental plan as well on how to handle challenges.  A flat tire is only a flat tire, a drafting penalty is a penalty which has to be served, but if you panic, get peeved, then what was a simple solvable issue can blow up, throwing off your entire race.

The lesson is… take the time to study that which you are training for; not just the distance, but as many dimensions of the competition as possible.  This is yet another benefit of working with a coach.  An attentive coach anticipates – as a result of experience and study – the widest range of ‘what ifs’ that can arise in competition, and adjusts training and race strategies for their athletes accordingly. This applies not only to triathlons, but to any competition whether it is a swim meet, open water swim competition, track meet, road races, or cycling events.  By anticipating, thus eliminating as many variables as possible the enjoyment, the satisfaction, and performance in competing can be far more rewarding.


It is easy to adjust training weeks, or better yet, months ahead to make a race the experience that you want it to be.  It just takes a bit of planning.

2 thoughts on “Bike Handling Skills for Ironman Hawaii

  1. MGrodski Post author
    4 Oct 2015
    Steve Godwin

    Canada’s Lionel Sanders will be taking on the Ironman World Championship for the first time next Saturday, Oct. 10. Watch as the Kona rookie explains his one-week-out workout and shares his first impressions of the bike course—including what has surprised him most. Plus: Want to see his power file and data from the ride? He shared it here.

    Click on the link here to the page at to listen to Lionel Sanders share his thoughts on the World Championship bike course.

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