Knowledge Level: Intermediate
Inspired by Member's queries, Ask the Experts articles cover the topics that you want to know about. In this feature we look at ways of gaining speed without having to splash out on the latest aero or lightweight kit.
British Cycling Member Sarah e-mailed in the following question: I've recently got into training for and riding sportives and, although my road bike is my pride and joy, I can't help noticing that some of my clubmates have far fancier kit. I'm a full-time student and money is short so, have you got any tips for going faster without spending loads of money.
Training more would definitely make most of us faster but, to use a cliché, time is money and more time in the saddle certainly isn’t free.
Even ruling out a pure financial cost, work and family commitments are a limiting factor on most peoples’ training. The philosophy of marginal gains has been at the heart of British Cycling’s success for a number of years and can equally be applied to your cycling and equipment to make the most of the time, fitness and kit you have. Each of the gains described may individually be small but add them all together and you’ll significantly improve your performance.
Sort your clothing out
You can have the most aerodynamic bike available but, if you’re wearing a waterproof that is billowing like a spinnaker on an Americas Cup yacht, you’ll be losing all those seconds gained and more. Any clothing that is flapping in the wind is lost speed. Get into the habit of zipping up your jersey on downhills and flats if you’ve unzipped it for a climb. Pay attention to the straps on your shoes and helmet and make sure that they’re neatly secured and not catching the wind. If you required to wear a number, pin it on so that it doesn’t flap and is out of the wind. Many Sportives require you to have a number on the front of your bike. Attach it as neatly as possible and, if regulations allow, cut it down to the minimum size.
Learn to corner and descend
Often with road cycling, too much emphasis is placed on fitness rather than on learning and practicing technical and bike handling skills. Corners give you three chances to gain, or to lose, speed. Going into to the corner, setting up properly and knowing just the right amount of speed to scrub. Through the corner, getting your line right and weighting the outside pedal to allow you to safely carry your speed. Exiting, being in the right gear to sprint away and not having lost so much momentum that you’re having to work all the way back up from zero. If gravity is there to do the work for you, don’t fight it. It’s pointless being a great climber if you can’t get down the other side quickly. Practice your descending so that you become smooth, fast, relaxed and safe. If you’re doing hill reps, use a twisty climb and practice your cornering and descending on the way down. Both mountain biking and cyclocross are great ways to improve bike handling without the worry of cars. Check out these links for more advice on cornering and descending.
Water is practically free and, by not taking enough of it on board and optimising your hydration, you can severely compromise your performance. Even on cooler days it is vital to combat fluid losses through sweating, breathing and urination. It is best to drink one or two cups of fluid before exercise and then get into the habit of sipping continuously throughout. Depending on conditions you should aim to take in between 500-1000ml per hour. Although this might seem a lot fluid losses from sweat alone can easily equate to this. A fluid loss of only 2-3% (1.5 - 2 kg in a 70 kg individual) will result in cycling performance dropping by 3-7%. Also don’t wait until you start to feel thirsty to begin drinking as, by that stage, you’ll already be significantly dehydrated and your performance will be suffering.
Lose some weight
Before spending hundreds of pounds stripping grams off your bike, be honest whether you might be able to shed some weight yourself. Carrying unnecessary excess weight is especially detrimental when the road kicks up. On a 5 km climb at 8 percent, if a 75 kg rider with a max sustainable power of 250 watts loses 2.5kg that would cut about 40 seconds off this rider's time. Improving power output by 20 watts without any weight loss cuts 85 seconds. If this rider loses 2.5 kilos and increases power by 20 watts, the improvement jumps to over 2 minutes. It’s not just on climbs though that carrying excess weight can cost you speed as, even on flats and descents, you’ll be having to punch a bigger hole in the air.
Be compact on the bike and pedal efficiently
By keeping your upper body still and relaxed and working on keeping your pedal stroke efficient you’ll not only save energy but also not create extra drag. This particularly applies to time-trials, on long flat roads or into headwinds where you want to be as still and small as possible. Rocking, bobbing or swaying should be avoided at all costs. When you’re riding constantly scan your body and check that you’re riding in a relaxed and efficient manner. Ensure your knees are driving up and towards the top-tube and that your body above waist height is still and tension free. With time and practice, the scanning and correction process will become almost automatic.
Keep your bike clean and well maintained
Advanced aero profiling is not much good if your frame’s covered in grime. Muck also adds unnecessary weight and can easily negate the grams you shaved off with those titanium skewers. Pay particular attention to your drive chain as energy lost as sound or friction is energy that isn’t getting to your rear wheel. Double-checking your bike set up before a big event is really important. Check that you brake blocks aren’t rubbing especially when you get out of the saddle.
Learn to slipstream
The energy savings of learning to ride properly in a group are massive. Research has shown that, while drafting, a cyclist can consume 30-40% less energy than those leading the pace line or pack. To get the most from drafting you must learn to ride comfortably within 6-10 inches of the back wheel in front of you. A good tip is not to stare at the wheel in front but rather to look ahead of the rider in front of you so you can anticipate movement or changes in speed of the group. Be aware that if there is a crosswind then an echelon will often form. Instead of lining up one cyclist behind the other, each cyclist is staggered off the rear flank of the one ahead to stay protected from the wind. One of the best ways to get comfortable riding in a group is to join your local cycling club.
Get down on your drops
We have drop handlebars on racing bikes because they allow us to go faster. If you’re wanting to push the pace on a long flat-road, are sitting at the front of a pace line, on a long descent or riding into a stiff headwind then the drops are where your hands should be. Wind tunnel testing has shown that a 70 kg cyclist putting out 200 watts of power would be traveling at 32.4 kph if riding upright on the brake hoods. However, if the same cyclist were to go down onto his drops his speed would increase to 34.4kph. For many riders time spent of the drops is limited by lower back or hamstring flexibility. Counter this by incorporating regular stretching into your routine.
Get your tyre pressure right
Don’t just blindly inflate your tyres until they feel hard, use a track pump with a pressure gauge and put the right pressure in relative to your weight and the road conditions. An under inflated tyre will increase rolling resistance, be more prone to pinch flats, will handle badly and can even come off the rim. Conversely, an over-inflated tyre will give you a harsh ride, less traction and is more prone to damage from sharp rocks and similar road hazards. It’s also important to remember that your front tyre will typically need 10% less pressure than the rear. The maximum inflation figure found on tyres will be have been established by the manufacturer after consultation with engineers and, more importantly, their legal department and will have a considerable tolerance built in. This doesn’t mean however that you should just pump and pump regardless. Experiment to find what tyre pressure suits you, the tyres you’re running, your riding style and the conditions. Most road bike tyres typically require 80-130psi. To find your ideal pressure, start in the middle of these ranges, then factor in your body weight. The more you weigh, the higher your pressure needs to be. For example, if a 75 kg rider uses 100 psi on his road bike, a 90 kg rider should run closer to 120 psi, and a 60 kg rider could get away with 80 psi.
Make the most of the air you breathe
Air is totally free and there’s a lot of it about. Although there might be an aerodynamic cost to opening up your riding position, over a long ride this can easily be offset by more effective breathing. Hunched shoulders reduce lung capacity and restrict your diaphragm so your handlebar’s width should at least equal that of your shoulders. Most cyclists overuse their rib muscles for inhaling and exhaling. Your abs can do the work more efficiently, extending your endurance by using less energy. Push your stomach out when inhaling and pull it in when exhaling. Flush carbon dioxide from your bloodstream before sprints or hard climbs. How? Take 15 deep breaths before the effort starts. Shortness of breath isn't caused by your lungs not getting enough oxygen, it's caused by too much carbon dioxide in your blood. So flush it out before the hill puts it back in.