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Ask the Experts - Cycling on the flat

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Article posted: 29/01/2014

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Even the most mountainous sportives usually have long flat valley sections linking the climbs and, if you’ve not worked on this aspect of your riding, you can easily find yourself being dropped by the group you’re riding with and then, if you haven’t got the strength to ride on your own, losing big chunks of time.

A flat section into the wind can easily take as much out of you as a climb and, if you switch off mentally every time you hit the flat, you’ll find yourself losing a lot of time.

In the same way we can’t all be mountain goat like climbers, we can’t all be mile devouring big gear churning rouleurs but, if you follow these tips, you can definitely improve your performance on the flats.

Pacing

In the same way that you use heart rate or power to gauge your effort on climbs, apply the same to the flat. If you’re riding on your own, don’t be sucked into trying to ride to a target speed, which can be massively affected by wind and road surface, but use your tested training zones to ride evenly and efficiently.

On hilly sportives, many inexperienced riders make the mistake of pushing too hard on flatter roads, trying to up their overall average speed and take too much out of themselves for climbing sections to come. Conversely it’s also a mistake to switch off completely on the flat and ride too easy. The ideal is to strike a balance and be able to pace flat sections so that you keep riding strongly but also recover, take on some fuel and prepare yourself for the challenges to come. Holding upper Zone 2 to mid Zone 3 is perfect for this.

If you’re in a group, keep a close eye on your effort level and don’t let the pace of the group push you too hard. Even though there are significant advantages to being in a group, if you’re really struggling to stay in it on the flat, these will soon be outweighed by the costs and you’ll be setting yourself up for more suffering when the road kicks up. You’re better off sitting up, riding to your own pace and maybe waiting for a slower group to catch you up which you can then join.

Cadence

Optimal cycling cadence varies significantly from rider to rider. Training and experience will allow you to find what works best for you on the flat but a common mistake is to try and push too big a gear. Try to work towards a cadence of 90 rpm +. If you’re struggling with leg speed and a smooth pedalling technique, consider doing some of your indoor training sessions on rollers and/or spending some time riding on the track.

Aerodynamics

When climbing you’re battling the gradient and, because of the slower speeds involved, aerodynamics aren’t so important. However, on the flat, the hole you’re having to punch through the air and the drag you and your bike are creating are the main determining factors of how fast you’ll move for the effort you’re putting in.

A super aerodynamic bike will gain you a small edge but the biggest gains can be made by focussing on your riding position, clothing and kit.

Get low and stretched out by either riding on your drops on in a “sphinx position” with your hands hooked over the hoods. If you struggle to hold these positions for extended periods, work on them in training and build up incrementally. Also, you might want to consider factoring in some daily flexibility work into your training as poor hamstring flexibility especially is a limiting factor for being able to hold aerodynamic positions.

Once low, focus on keeping your upper body strong but relaxed. Minimise movement of your head and upper body, as any rocking or swaying will increase the size of the profile you’re presenting to the wind. Keep your elbows in and try to consciously think about keeping yourself as compact and still as possible. Drive strongly with your legs and try to work them slightly inwards and over your top tube, avoid pedalling with your knees sticking out to the sides which again increases drag.

Minimise drag from your kit by making sure jersey and jacket zips are done up and, if you’re wearing a race number, that it’s neatly and securely pinned on out of the wind. Anything flapping is creating unnecessary drag, so ensure that helmet and shoe straps are properly fastened. It might seem excessive but small gain soon add up and, over the course of a long ride, can save measurable energy.  For sportives, you’re often required to have a number on the front of your bike but, if the ride’s rules allow, you should cut off any excess to reduce drag. For more ways to gain free speed, look here.

Training

Riding on the flat places very different demands on your body than climbing and to do it well you’ll have to work specifically on it in training. As we’ve already mentioned you may have to spend time developing the flexibility and strength required to hold a stable aerodynamic position and you’ll also have to work on the muscular endurance and strength needed to push a relatively high gear at a high cadence.

Intervals work well, especially around sweet-spot (upper Zone 3 to mid Zone 4). It’s demanding enough to provoke a good physiological response and challenging to hold a prolonged effort but won’t require a long recovery period afterwards. You can also factor these sorts of efforts into longer rides. 2X20 minutes with a 5 minute recovery, if you have a suitable long stretch of flat road without junctions or traffic lights, or, alternatively, 6-8X5 minutes with 1 minute recoveries. Make sure you stick to a 90 rpm cadence and focus on maintaining strict form and position. If you don’t have suitable roads for these sessions, they can be performed on an indoor trainer.

Both track sessions and chain-gang workouts on the road are great ways to build your speed on the flat. Focussing on some time trials, such as your local club’s weekday evening 10-mile events, is a brilliant way to work on your solo pacing and to learn what level of effort you’re able to sustain. Don’t think that you have to have a full time-trial rig to take part. You’ll be more than welcome on a road bike, definitely won’t be the only one, it’ll enable you to practise sustained efforts on that bike and it’s all about your progress against the clock anyway.

Occasionally change your focus on your longer rides. Aim to ride the hills steadily and then push hard on any flat sections. If you’re riding with a group, agree with them this is the plan, don’t attack each other on the climbs and ride the flats as chain-gang efforts.

Handling skills

Often on the flat, you’ll be riding in a group and knowing how to follow a wheel, shelter from the wind and work well with the other riders, will save you having to expend unnecessary energy and increase your overall speed. Staying relaxed is the key and will help to make sure that you ride predictably and efficiently. Avoid letting gaps open as you’ll have to waste energy to close them or you may even cause the group to split.

Don’t shirk your turn on the front and try to keep the speed of the group consistent. Don’t wind it up, put in a long pull of you’re feeling strong but equally, if you’re suffering, don’t sit on the front and let the pace drop, just put in a few pedal stokes and then pull off. In a race situation you obviously have to make a decision whether to work with the group or not but, having good strength and group riding skills, with give you plenty of options. Races are rarely won on flat sections of road but, if you can’t stay with a group or bridge a gap, they can be lost.

As well as developing flat speed and strength, track work and chain-gangs are ideal for building your confidence for riding at speed in a group.

Psychological approach

It’s too easy during the lead up and on the day of a sportive, race or long training ride to focus on the big climbs. This is important, you should find out as much as you can about them but it’s also key to think of the route as a whole. A flat section into the wind can easily take as much out of you as a climb and, if you switch off mentally every time you hit the flat, you’ll find yourself losing a lot of time. An example in the UK is the A66 stretch on the Fred Whitton Sportive. Riders tend to obsess about the big passes such as Hardknott and Wrynose but, if you’re not in the right group on this main road drag, haven’t got the skills or confidence to stay in the wheels or just haven’t got the flat speed, you’ll waste huge amounts of energy and can forget about a good time.

When you hit a flat section of road, don’t breathe a sigh of relief and sit up but don’t think that you have to put the hammer down either. Switch into flat focus and think about the three P’s, pacing, position and precision. Set a heart rate or power limit for pacing, remember the importance of holding a strong and aerodynamic position and ride in a precise and efficient manner in the group.

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