The importance of technical skills in riding performance
In this modern age of science and cutting-edge technology, it is often easy to forget the fundamentals that contribute to a rider’s speed and performance.
Many riders get caught up with the latest developments in aerodynamics, frame design, and training protocols to help them to ride faster with a lesser effort that they forget the value of simple cycling basics that play a big role in how fast one goes – bike handling.
There is a saying that goes ‘smooth is fast’, which in our context is to say the more efficient you are in handling your bike, the faster you can go without having to put in additional effort.
Sounds obvious but do you know where you lose the most speed by being an inefficient bike handler?
Cornering & Descending
Perhaps the most obvious out of the three, cornering is where you can gain or lose big chunks of time. Throw in a few chicanes or a long descent and a tiny gap of 2 seconds can grow into 5 minutes in no time.
Watch a professional race that has a criterium or a long mountain descent and you will notice those who come out first are usually the ones who possess an excellent prowess in cornering.
Remember the likes of Nibali during the 2017 Tour de France or Peter Sagan in many of his descents? Those are just two of the many great examples of how one can benefit from good bike handling skills without having to purchase any fancy equipment!
A smooth line that allows for minimal braking and fast exit speed is the key to a quick transition in between corners. This means that cornering is as much a mental process as it is physical.
Most corners have multiple riding lines that you can choose from where the best line will vary depending on your speed, weather conditions, tire wear, and cornering style. The general principle is to:
- Look as far ahead into the corner and decide on the line to take
- Adjust your speed before entering the corner as much as possible (try not to adjust it while cornering as it might cause your bike to feel unstable/skid)
- Start out wide with the outside leg (opposite to the direction of the corner) is in the 6 o’clock position
- Cut the apex of the corner (not necessarily the middle of a corner) while pushing down on the outside leg
- Exit the corner and start pedaling again
I always tell my clients and athletes to ‘look at where you want to go, not where you don’t want to go’. This not only helps you with looking ahead and enabling you to adapt to changes but also helps your body and bicycle to naturally lean into the correct line without having to put in any extra effort.
You would find that the reverse is true when riders look at something that scares them and end up having to make an emergency maneuver or worse, end up there instead!
Climbing is probably the most dreaded thing for many riders and we would all give anything to be able to climb faster (or even just without being so out of breath!).
Before you read on, picture yourself pedaling up a steep 10% gradient that goes on for 15km. What do you see?
Are you hunched over the handlebars with your collapsed shoulders, hips moving all over in an attempt to squeeze out every last watt available, and rocking your bicycle back and forth?
Or are you sat on the saddle with relaxed hands and upright shoulders, stable hips, and powering up the climb?
Many of us would have been picturing the former as we struggle against gravity, yet the key to riding uphill efficiently is represented by the latter.
While this may be counterintuitive and not an outright technical skill, forcing yourself to maintain a good riding posture even while you are struggling allows you to transfer more power to where it matters and waste less energy into movements that do not contribute with forwarding motion.
Keeping your upper body relaxed and not collapsed in also allows you to breathe deeper (into your diaphragm) thus getting more of that precious oxygen your body craves.
Easing off the pedals just as you are about to crest the climb is also a fundamental error that many riders make. While it obviously understandable that we would do that from being fatigued from the first ¾ of the climb, giving it a little more push just as you crest the climb allows you to save time and energy on the descent by giving you momentum to roll off into the descent while keeping the effort all the way up the climb.
Many riders struggle to keep up right after the climb as it is more difficult to chase as the gradient points downwards because of increasing speeds and it being more challenging to push out a huge amount of power.
Drafting/riding in a group
This last skill is perhaps more applicable to those who race or ride in fast group rides regularly. Because of the nature of racing, one must stay near the from to remain competitive.
Many attacks go off from the front just as the peloton eases up, and the peloton can be split into groups easily when crosswinds, narrow roads, or many corners are present.
Staying at the front also helps to save energy because of the rubber-band effect where the fluctuations in speed get exponentially greater as you move further back the pack.
The ability to constantly stay at the front without having to expend much energy doing so, or ‘surfing the peloton’, is, therefore, a very crucial skill for any serious competitive cyclist. The problem then, of course, arises because everyone in the pack is aiming to do the same thing too!
Staying in the middle within the first half of the group usually provides the most shelter from the wind if the pack is bunched up, but if your group is riding in a double pace line formation, take note of the wind direction and stay on the inside of it. For example, if the wind is blowing from the right, try to stay in the left lane as much as you can.
Always constantly try to keep moving forward in the pack because if you are not, you are moving towards the back as the pack comes with various speed fluctuations and attacks coming from all sides of the peloton.
Use the course route to your advantage as mentioned earlier by taking the corners a lot more smoothly than others or by gaining some ground on the climbs and descents.
It is evident that we should not get lost in the world of advancement and forget our fundamentals of bike riding as it still plays a very crucial role in performance.
It is not the strongest rider who wins the race, but the freshest (and smartest) who crosses the finish line first. Deliberate practice is necessary if one seeks to improve.
At CrankSmart, we offer sessions and workshops that work on the technical abilities of any rider. For more information, do visit www.cranksmart.com.
Author: Lemuel Lee
Founder and coach at CrankSmart, Lemuel is passionate about all things concerning cycling. He has been in constant pursuit of methods and ways to improve human performance ever since he start cycling competitively in 2005, and has spent his cycling career not just as a rider, but also dedicating time in the field of Sports Science, applying those lessons to his own training. He graduated with a Diploma and Bachelors degree in Sports and Exercise Sciences (Republic Polytechnic, National Technological University of Singapore) and is now helping individuals unlock their potential through smart training.