20 Sep Cycling sport
When you see the huge pack of riders in full flight coming into a stage finish of the Tour DE France, see us suffer over the high mountains or empty ourselves in a time trial…
It’s the training that gets us there that you don’t see!
Training for five, six, seven hours a day in all weathers for years and years; the sacrifice, the dedication – this is what it takes to reach the pinnacle of the sport.
Winning Paris Roubaix in 2004 was my payback for the days as a teenager where I sat studying a huge poster of double-Roubaix-winner Gilbert Duclos Lassalle on my bedroom wall. Like all youngsters I used to say to myself, ‘One day I will win that race!’
To stand on the podium lofting a huge lump of stone that you get for winning the queen of the classics was, for me, the reward for all the years that I have dedicated myself to my training.
You will achieve some success by just riding your bike, but you will miss some- thing. Sometimes you won’t be able to put your finger on what it was… Structure!
I am famous for my work ethic, but even as a professional I admit I sometimes lacked structure. I have a coach who plans my training to the letter, and I know how planning and structuring your training correctly makes a huge difference to your performance.
Cycling is a unique sport – most of us are taught the basics at an early age, often before we are introduced to any other sport. And that’s it, no more help, apart from maybe a cycling proficiency test at school. Which is a shame, as anyone – no matter what their age or ability can improve and get more enjoyment from their time on a bike, with just a little bit of effort and planning.
Which bicycle sport is for you?
We cover all the main cycling disciplines in this article – what follows is a quick overview of each, and the type of events that you’ll find.
The world’s finest racers take on the incredibly tough Grand Tours like the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana, events that bring cycle racing to a larger audience and where the participants are at the peak of physical shape. At an entry level, road racing is perhaps the hardest sport to start, which also makes it the most satisfying and rewarding. Road racing is not only about skill and fitness, it also involves tactics and – at the highest level – it requires teamwork to make the advantage. We’ve explained the basics here, so that you will have a better idea when you start out how to reach your goals.
The ‘race of truth’ has long been a feature of stage races and can be the deciding factor in winning overall. All the great road riders – Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil, Fausto Coppi, Miguel Indurain, Bernard Hinault and Lance Armstrong – were magnificent riders against the clock. It requires meticulous preparation and specific training all of which we cover. However it’s a simple form of bicycle sport too – all you need is a bike and a stopwatch.
On the face of it, track racing seems terrifying and dangerous. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is probably the safest introduction to racing for children – they have a habit of having less fear and better reactions than adults and they can learn their skills and technique on the track without the dangers of busy traffic. It gives young riders the freedom to really get stuck in. It is also a fantastic way to de- velop speed and technique for any cyclist and is worth a try. Don’t be scared – it’s great fun!
Mountain bike cross country
Mountain biking is in many ways, bizarrely, similar to track racing – it requires high levels of skill and coordination and is exhilarating, fast and furious. It’s also one of the easiest disciplines of cycle sport to access, with races and training days a reg- ular feature of all local mountain bike clubs and teams. There are fun and youth entry-level races at all mountain bike events and the emphasis is on participation and ‘having a go’.
Mountain bike downhill
This is an off-shoot of cross country and developed as a direct result of wanting more thrills (and spills) while testing a rider’s skill and technique against the clock. Downhill racers still need to be fit as pedalling fast and powerfully will add the essential speed and, perhaps, a podium place. No surprise then that the interna- tional downhill racers take their fitness very seriously.
On the face of it this sport seems a little odd – riding road bikes in the mud with skinny off-road tyres and having to tackle obstacles and short run ups. It was origi- nally invented to allow road racers to keep fit in the winter and develop technique. It is now a massive sport in it’s own right in northern Europe. Like mountain bik- ing, ‘cross’ – as it is also known – can be really easy to begin with as most events will allow you to use a mountain bike and all have entry level races for beginners.
For many cyclists the idea of racing isn’t the main motivator, but a challenge is still a prerequisite for motivation. Cyclo-sportive events are timed, but usually cover long distances or courses of big races, such as the ‘Etape’ which is set on a stage of the year’s Tour de France. They are not races as such but do allow riders to test their ability and endurance. With this discipline we also include the many long dis- tance charity rides that take place the world over.
This article covers everything from buying your bike and looking after it, through to what to take on your rides, finding the best places to ride and choosing the best conditions to start your riding. Whether you are new to the sport or a sea- soned rider, it really is worth spending some time reading these pages – these are the building blocks of all the training guidance and programmes that follow. New riders should use the headings as a checklist to make sure that you have everything covered. Experienced cyclists – we hope you will be reminded of a few golden rules that you may have forgotten along the way and perhaps also pick up some new ideas.
The first of our basics is your bike. For most cyclists this falls somewhere between a revered art icon and a well-loved companion. However, depending on how you choose it and how you set it up, your bike has the potential to be either your best friend or your nemesis.
Before you buy
There are several things that should be considered when buying a new bike. Remember, your bike needs to be an extension of your body and to fit you per- fectly, so above all, you must be honest about your aspirations and your physical shape. Before you rush out and spend several thousand pounds on your new pride and joy, stop to consider the following questions.
1. Is the bike right for your type of riding – does it fulfill your aspirations and is it suitable for the kind of riding you do (or intend to do)?
2. Does the riding position suit your physical proportions?
3. Does anything hurt (yes, other than your legs from the effort!) when you ride your bike?
If you don’t ask these questions – and are not truthful with yourself when answer- ing them – you may end up buying a bike based on passion or fashion, rather than function. You may also find that you are not in the ideal physical shape to get the most out of the bike and will end up sore and uncomfortable after a few hours rid- ing, which is likely to result in you abandoning the bike and wasting a good deal of cash.
And, despite what your long-term riding aspirations may be, don’t be tempted to try to set yourself up as a pro rider. Pro bike riders are professional because they are extremely talented athletes. You have probably realised by now that to make it into the pro peloton you have to be able to ride a bike very fast and for a very long time. And that isn’t easy (although with a bit of luck, this article will help you towards that goal). Flexibility and the physical ability required to ride 35,000–40,000km (20,000– 25,000 mi.) a year means that the bike set-up for a pro rider rides is never going to be suitable for the rider who rides a fraction of that distance, and can barely touch their toes. So be realistic about the bike you ride – in reality it might be slowing you down.
Professional bike riders are a fastidious lot. The great Eddy Merckx was so fussy about his saddle height he often carried an Allen key when racing to adjust it ‘on the fly’ when descending mountains. Nothing much has changed – pro riders today are still very particular about their bike’s set-up.
Despite this, there is only so much tinkering that you can do yourself. The best bet is to get advice – as with everything in this sport, this can range from the simple to the complex. At the very least an experienced rider should be able to help you set up a bike. Professional bike fitting and analysis is now very popular and readily available, so get an appointment at your local specialist cycle shop. Physiologists can also study your movement on the bike and a trained bike fitter will have expe- rience of a variety of body types and riding aspirations, so they are well worth a visit. In other words: don’t guess at it. Seek help, especially before you spend a pile of money on the wrong-sized frame or inappropriate bike.
It takes a few weeks to adapt to a new bike set-up. This is why experienced riders only adjust saddle height and pedal cleats by very small increments, so that their body doesn’t experience any ‘after shock’ from big changes in set-up. Try to stick with one set-up as much as possible to avoid injury and to make sure your mus- cles are used to riding in a set position. It is not easy to copy exactly the same set- up without having identical bikes but try and keep it as close as is possible. Before you start to tweak your set up to find the perfect bike fit, get a good overall picture of your riding style. And remember that all good things come to those who wait – unless you are incredibly lucky you will not stumble across your ideal set-up immediately; it will take time.
To assess your current position you can do several things yourself:
Step 1 – Video yourself during a turbo session
This will highlight any abnormalities and problems as they happen. Ask a (patient) friend to do the filming and then they can concentrate on different parts of your body for a few minutes or so. Note: as the session increases in intensity you will revert to your worst habits. Your trunk (torso) may begin to roll from side to side, the shoulders can start to rock and you may over-reach for the pedals as your hips start to rock from side to side. It is also likely that you will shift further and further forward (or back) in the saddle. Other things to look out for are your pedalling style and feet orientation. See how you can adapt the bike to counter these habits, perhaps by using a lower or higher saddle, or a shorter stem.
Step 2 – Look at your handlebar tape
Where is it most worn away? Where do you spend most of your riding time? Most road riders will be on the tops of the handlebars or on the lever hoods for quick access to the brakes and gears. If you find you ride most of the time with outstretched arms with your fingers just touching the bars then it’s highly likely your bike is way too long. If you spend all the time on the drops, your handlebars may be too high.
Step 3 – Take a good look at how your bike is set up
Measure and make a record of the following critical dimensions:
A- Handlebar to saddle drop – use a long level or get a broom handle (it has to be dead straight) and measure the drop from the saddle to the centre of the han- dlebar. Ignore the pro bike set-up for a moment, this should be no greater than 10cm (4in.), preferably a lot less. For mountain biking or touring, riders usually have the saddle and handlebars close to equal heights. For cyclo-cross, the handle- bars may be marginally lower than the saddle, but not by much. The longer you spend in the saddle, the less extreme you’ll want the difference in height between handlebars and saddle.
B-Tip of the saddle to the centre of the handlebar – this measurement is defined by your trunk length, arm reach and arm length.
C- Tip of the saddle to the centre of each control lever (these should be the same obviously) – again this is a reach measurement, however, it can vary enormously depending on handlebar and component manufacturers.
D-The centre of saddle to the centre of the bottom bracket (your saddle height).
E- Also – crank length (see more about this in Chapter 2), handlebar type, width, reach and drop.
PEDALLING WITH A BELLY?
If you have a large stomach this will stop you bending and reaching lower as your legs have to travel around your rotundness on every up-stroke of the pedal revolution. Reaching lower (or further away) for the handlebars simply amplifies this. This is why much larger riders tend to ride with a very ‘knees open’ pedal stroke. Not only will your extra weight slow you down on the hills, it also makes for a very inefficient pedalling pattern. Therefore, overweight riders can be prone to knee and joint injury. A higher handlebar position may prove more comfort- able but, sorry, to be more efficient you’ll have to reduce the belly.
There are many techniques for determining the correct saddle height and generally speaking you have a small ‘zone’ of leg extension. You are aiming to make sure your hips remain as still as possible. If your hips rock from side to side your saddle is too high. Not only will this place pressure on the back muscles as your legs stretch to reach the bottom, but also you will become very sore as you slide from one side of the saddle to the other in order to press down on the pedals.
CALCULATING SADDLE HEIGHT
Here is a simple but effective method of achieving a good saddle height: have a friend hold your bike upright and sit on the saddle and place your heels on the pedals. Move the pedals so they are in line with the seat tube. Your extended leg should be straight (without stretching to reach the pedals). If it isn’t, you need to adjust the saddle height accordingly. There should be no movement in your hips as you pedal backwards. Move the ball of your foot into the pedalling position and you will have a slight bend in your knee. You may have to make minor ad- justments of a few millimetres up or down according to the depth of the soles on your cycling shoes, pedal type, foot size, pedalling style and event, but this is a good starting point that is unlikely to cause any damage.
The current trend in road bikes is to have the handlebars set very low. The Ahead- set has meant that the stem ends up low on the head tube and this in turn adds extra distance between the saddle and the stem. The result is usually a pain in the neck from having to crane your head or neck forward. To overcome this, many rid- ers are rotating their handlebars or setting the brake levers further back on the hooks of the handlebars. This is not a good idea, as it makes the brakes extremely difficult to reach and operate efficiently from the drops. If necessary, reverse the handlebar stem to bring the handlebars a little higher. If you extend a line through the ends of the handlebars it should roughly bisect the middle of the seatstays.
Pedals and pedal alignment
There are dozens of different pedal systems, and all have their benefits. Clipless pedals are used by most cyclists these days, although some track sprinters still use toe straps (often combined with clipless pedals) to make sure that they stay in touch with the bike when wrenching the cranks with enormous force. Pedal cleats need to be regularly checked for wear and for twisting – the bolts need to be tight. Worn cleats can rock from side to side and can prevent the float from working effectively and may also disengage unexpectedly. Your feet need also to be stable. Rocking feet use up energy and can play havoc with ankle, knee and hip joints.
If your feet do not naturally fall flat on the pedals, your cleats can be wedged to one side or the other and orthotic inserts made for your shoes can correct your foot plant and help your pedal stoke. This can also align the joints and miraculously solve many pedalling inefficiencies and stroke abnormalities, sometimes instantly. This is a pretty new science to cycling, but in the same way that it affects runners with their shoe choice, your foot plant also affects you as a cyclist. If you suffer from any ankle, knee, hip or back pain through riding a bike, it’s well worth consid- ering visiting a podiatrist in the first instance.
CLEAT FITTING – FORE AND AFT
Cleats in cycling shoes need to be aligned to your natural pedalling action. Go to the foot of a staircase and climb the stairs with flat feet. Hard isn’t it? Now do it again using the balls of your feet on the stair treads. This is much easier, as it uses all your leg muscles to the best of their capability. For this reason, the cen- tre of the ball of your foot should be placed directly over the centre of the pedal axle. This will mean all your leg’s power can be ‘expressed’ into the drive train. Ideally, your feet should be parallel with the bike’s top tube, but since few of us walk with our feet like that, forcing your feet into an unnatural position is bound to create problems somewhere in the muscular-skeletal system. You need to adopt a pedalling position that is as natural as possible. Most riders usually have their heels slightly inboard of their toes. But don’t worry if you find that your preference is different to your riding companions, or even if you have one foot different to the other. The important factor is to pedal comfortably without stress or injury.
It’s not just about the bike
There are a number of personal characteristics that will influence your comfort on the bike, including:
• Poor flexibility – cyclists are notoriously bad at stretching. Try to buck this trend – every minute you spend stretching will be repaid. It’s by far the easiest way to avoid injury and avoid postural problems. (For more on stretching, see here).
• Muscle weakness or imbalance – this may be either the result of injury or of another sport which creates a dominance in certain muscle groups. Either way, it is worth considering a visit to a physiotherapist or osteopath for both treatment and guidance on a suitable programme of strength training and rehabilitation to redress the balance.
• Previous injuries – again, it may be worth a trip to a medical professional. • Sudden (catastrophic) damage – due to crashes or accidents.
• Congenital issues – how you sit on a bike can only be changed so much. It’s possible that you are an ‘odd’ shape and this may mean you need a custom- built frame.
• Postural problems – sitting all day or standing all day will place differing strains and impact on your body. Cycling is a weight bearing activity so there isn’t much strain on the body unless the position has been poorly matched somewhere.
• Leg length discrepancy – this can create a hip or back problem that is ampli- fied by hours on the bike.
Many of the points covered above are generic to cycling and do not take specific disciplines into consideration. Here are a few more things to think about in the pursuit of the perfect riding position.
If you are serious about riding off road, you must ride your mountain bike as much as possible. Add some slick tyres for winter road training to get used to your racing position. Many seasoned pro mountain bike riders own just one mountain bike and this allows them to have a familiar riding position all year round. If, like many pro mountain bikers, you swap over to a road bike for part of your training or rac- ing, keep your two positions as close to one another as possible – even if this means a marginally less aerodynamic road position.
Unlike road bikes, aerodynamics are not as important on a mountain bike – com- fort and control are the key elements. The front ends of many mountain bikes are usually quite high, which makes it much easier to set the handlebars in the appro- priate ‘sit up and beg’ position, with the saddle set at a similar height. When once long stems were favoured on mountain bikes, today’s preference is for shorter bikes with compact frames, for greater agility and control.
Most cross riders adopt a similar position to their road bikes but with the handle- bars slightly higher and closer. This position provides better control at slow speeds and faster steering, as well as making the bike more manageable on steep de- scents. Saddle height may be fractionally less than for road riding partly to lower the centre of gravity, but more significantly to make leaping on and off the bike a little easier (especially with a cross bike’s higher bottom bracket). Cyclo-cross riders have to work hard on their technique and therefore the bike set up will be tweaked to gain the best combination of slow speed handling and com- fort before flat out aerodynamic road speed.
A time trial requires a powerful and consistent effort but it is also where position can play the biggest part in performance. If you watch riders in a time trial or study pictures of them, you’ll notice how much their positions vary from one rider to the next. This is an area where amateur riders make the most mistakes. For example, if you can ride at 50kph (30mph) for over an hour you may want to consider a more aerodynamic position than a rider who rides at less than 40kmph (25mph) over a similar distance. Remember, comfort will determine how far and how fast you can travel – aerodynamics is just the icing on the cake.
If you have two bikes, copy the set up of your racing bike onto your training bike and train in the position you are going to be racing in. Specialist time trial riders in the propeloton ride at least once a week on their TT bikes, even during the winter, so that they can constantly remain familiar with their more extreme aerodynamic position. Some even use their TT bike for specific speed work and have it set up on a turbo trainer so they can do intervals in their TT position.
Opinions on aerodynamics in cycling are very involved. However, everyone agrees that the best way to go faster is to use the most aerodynamic, yet still comfortable, position you can. This should come before you start to worry about disc wheels, aero helmets and expensive machinery. In fact, there is plenty of evidence to sug- gest that a properly set up TT bike with standard wheels and equipment is far faster than a badly set up aero TT bike with the latest kit on it.
Aerodynamics is not as simple as merely getting the front end as low as you can manage. Chris Boardman’s TT bike was set at such an extreme position that riders of a similar stature would struggle to ride it for 10 minutes. But as he has pointed out, his body shape allows him to sit happily in an aero tuck whilst riding to the shops. But not everyone is so lucky. Compare his position to that of Miguel In- durain or Lance Armstrong – these two superb TT riders were unable to achieve the same low aerodynamic position, but they rode just as fast because they could harness their power through positions that were comfortable and efficient for them.
Triathlon or aero handlebars
These handlebars first came about in the RAAM (Race Across America) in the mid- 1980s and were actually first designed for comfort as they allowed the riders to rest their arms on the arm pads and still steer the bike. The result achieved not only comfort but was also very aerodynamic allowing the rider to assume a downhill ski- ing type tuck, with the arms providing a penetrating element for a much more aerodynamic shape. This was adopted to great affect by triathletes who copied the RAAM position. The handlebars eventually reached mainstream cycling when Greg Lemond first used them to win the Tour de France in 1989 in dramatic style in a 25km (15mi.) time trial on the final day, beating Laurent Fignon (who rode a stan- dard TT bike of the day) by 58 seconds giving him the overall victory by just 8 seconds – the closest ever winning margin.
To a large degree, the shapes and dimensions of your handlebars and aerobars determine how low you can get over the bike. However, if your reach is too long this can affect the steering and if you opt to place the gear controls at the ends of the handlebar extensions you may find that they are a bit of a stretch. Your flexi- bility, along with your arm and torso length will play just as big a part as your height and leg length to achieve your optimal position. If you set your handlebar height too low, you may well experience neck and back pain, especially in the longer events. It’s worth considering a higher handlebar position (or even using a road bike set up) if you are going to ride for longer than 80km (50mi.). When you first experiment with aerobars, use a set that allows for a lot of adjustment so you can experiment and adapt your position.
TT SADDLE HEIGHT
The popular opinion has been that a TT bike should have a higher saddle posi- tion than a road set up, but recent research states exactly the opposite. The lower the position at the front, the lower the saddle height needs to be dropped. Why? Well, by leaning further over and subsequently further forward of your usual road position you are tilting your hips forward further, which effectively lengthens the pedalling stroke and therefore raises your saddle height for you. A reduction of up to 2cm (1in.) is sometimes needed to retain the same power output when in the TT tuck.
On the track, power is the key element, even over comfort. However many en- durance track riders (who are usually road riders as well) adopt the same position on all of their bikes. The common mistake is to raise the saddle height in the quest for more power, when lowering the saddle is actually the true way towards a more powerful position, as it allows you to recruit more muscle power into the pedal stroke.
For sprinters, handlebar height and reach is usually lower for better aerodynamics and to make it easier to pull up on the handlebars and bring more muscles (in the back and arms) into use. However, you are less likely to use the upper part of the handlebars (unless riding the Madison) so this should be considered when set- tling on a position. Sprinters can travel at 60kph (40mph) or more, so control is also vital – don’t be tempted just to fit a negative rise stem and the deepest set of drops you can find – experiment with your sprinting position. Whereas in the past sprinters always preferred a very low handlebar height with narrow bars, the current trend among top sprinters is to raise the handlebars for more open arms so they can fill their lungs more easily and bend their arms more to reach the lower sprint- ing position. If the handlebars are set too long and low, your arms will be too straight. This is no good for match sprinting where the riders throw the bike all over the place.
LOOKING AFTER YOUR BIKE
1. Change your tyres regularly Tyre choice is down to experience and personal preference, but changing your tyres long before they wear out is key to speed and safety. As tyres wear thinner they will be more likely to puncture and grip will begin to get more unpredictable. This can be lethal, so keep a stock of tyres and swap the back for the front from time to time to keep the wear consistent (the rear tyre wears out quicker).
2. Watch out for road debris Prevention is better than cure, especially when it’s wet and cold. If you ride in all weathers you will get more punctures. If you ride in the gutter and through parks and subways you are more likely to get a flat. In rain debris is washed all over the road and you are more likely to catch a flint or shard of glass.
3. Learn how to fix a flat Fixing punctures is an essential cycling prerequisite. Practice is essential for speed, but anyone can fix a flat if they have the time and patience. Ask a shop mechanic to show you if you are not sure (they have to do this ten times a day, so they are usually quite good at it!) and in time you will get quicker.
4. Pre-ride check Look over the bike. Does anything look unusual? Are the cables frayed or does the outer cable look kinked or broken? Has the chain gone a little slack? Do the brakes have any pad wear and do the brake levers work smoothly? Pick up the bike and (gently) drop it, does anything rattle? Check the tyres, especially the treads for flints and wear.
5. Wash your bike Having a clean bike is the first step to having a well running bike. You get close to the workings and are more likely to spot the signs of wear and tear. Wash your bike as soon as you return after every rainy or muddy training session. Dry it off and lube the chain, so the bike is ready to go next time.
6. Have a regular service If you are busy and never have the time to prepare your bike properly then find a local bike shop and build a good relationship with them. Good bike shops usually have good customers and they will have busy work- shops. Bike mechanics are a loyal bunch who take pride in what they do, so treat them well. Then if your bike is in need of last minute attention before a big race or you need a repair in a hurry they are far more likely (and willing) to be able to help you.
7. Replace the chain regularly Many professional cycling team mechanics replace the chain every 2,000–3,000km (1,250–1,875 mi.). This prevents damage to the cassette (rear cogs) and chainrings, meaning they will last a good year, or longer. Leaving the same chain on for months means that the next time you re- place it the gears will skip and you’ll have to replace the whole drive-train, which is far more expensive.
8. Lubricate Keeping the chain and moving parts lubricated and clean, will prolong the lifespan of these expensive components. Use a quality lightweight chain lube and a bike specific spray oil on gears and brake pivots. Use a heavier waterproof oil in the winter months.
9. Keep your tyres at the recommended pressure This cannot be stressed enough. Road tyres grip better and last well if they are run at the right pressures. They will also repel thorns, flints and glass shards. Mountain bike tyres need to be adapted for the terrain and the conditions and they also need to be pumped to suit the rider. Lighter riders can put less air in to get more grip, while heavier riders should ride