A Cyclist Out Of The Saddle Riding Hard On A Gravel Road In A Tropical Area

5 Important Things to Consider for On-Bike Performance

BY Yago Alcalde

Discover essential strategies to enhance cycling performance beyond traditional training methods with insights on comfort, pacing, race course analysis, nutrition, and aerodynamics for optimal results on the bike.

When we think about performing well in any cycling event, we usually focus on training: doing more kilometers or more hours. Yes, it is clear that performance is closely related to training volume in endurance sports. However, in addition to training a lot and training well, we must consider other factors that will also be very important when it comes to optimizing performance on the bike.

The Importance of Being Comfortable on the Bike 

Comfort is performance. It’s that simple. A cyclist who is uncomfortable on his bike will never be able to optimize his performance. When we are uncomfortable on the bike, sooner or later, that discomfort will turn into some pain. If this pain is prolonged over time, it can become an injury or an overload that will limit training and performance. Apart from the physical and functional components, being uncomfortable is also a significant psychological burden since our attention will be focused on the discomfort instead of the task at hand.

Let’s look at some examples: if my head is focused on my neck hurting, I will concentrate less on keeping the pace, looking for the best line or choosing the best gear. For a comfortable and efficient position on the bike, the best investment is to look for a cycling biomechanic with experience and good references to help us adjust the bike according to our characteristics. Small changes in the configuration of our bike can mean significant differences with the passing of hours and thousands of pedal strokes. Getting a good position on the bike is not simply about setting the saddle height right; many more settings need to be optimized.

Managing Pacing 

In an endurance sport such as cycling, in any of its modalities, the management of pedaling intensity is a determining factor when it comes to optimizing performance, mainly because energy is finite and fatigue is cumulative. To use a car analogy, our fuel tank (muscle glycogen) is the same as a car: as we pedal, our tank empties. And the more intense we pedal, the faster it will exhaust. A car’s fuel consumption at 90 km/h isn’t the same as at 150km/h, is it? Well, no. The harder you go, the sooner you’ll use up your gas. And we never want to run out of gas before we reach the finish line. It’s easy to understand but difficult to execute.

Getting stricken with cramps usually indicates that our pace management has not been the best and we have reached the bottom of the tank. On many occasions, the so-called “race number effect” plays tricks on us when it comes to managing our pace since our motivation in the heat of battle makes us pedal beyond our means and disregard any planning. Learning to choose your rhythm well is mostly a matter of experience. In addition to learning to know our limits, we can use heart rate and/or power to help us not exceed certain thresholds.

Course Analysis

In any event we do (mountain, road, triathlon), knowing the characteristics of the route will help us establish a better strategy to optimize our performance. On the one hand, we have the technical aspect, especially in mountain bike (MTB) events. Ideally, you should try to pre-ride the course at least once to get to know the most technical areas and help you find the best lines for speed on competition day —  on the road, too. So, going to the race location a day or two in advance is highly recommended to try to recognize the terrain. An e-bike can help as it allows us to access the key points of the route with less effort, especially in MTB races.

In addition to the technical component in the descents, it is essential to know what the orography of the race is like, that is, how many climbs we must overcome as well as the characteristics of them. The duration of each climb will determine the optimal intensity to overcome it, and knowing this in advance will be very useful. We don’t face a five-minute climb the same as a one-hour climb.

A factor to also take into account is to know the terrain that comes after each climb, as it can be a decisive moment that decides a race. For example, if a downhill section comes after a climb, with little technical difficulty or a downward slope, it may not make sense to get away from the group on the climb. Since it is more than likely that we will be caught as soon as they take a few turns together on the descent. On the contrary, let’s imagine there is a technical descent after reaching the top, and then there is the finish line. It could be an opportunity to attack on the climb.

In the end, it’s about knowing the terrain to make a good strategy. The topography will also determine gearing choice.

Eat, Drink and Save Energy.

In cycling slang, this has always been referred to as “EDD” — eating, drinking, and drafting. What do we mean by the concept of drafting? We’re talking about trying to save as much energy as possible by taking advantage of the slipstream of other cyclists. In case you don’t know, aerodynamic drag is the main force we must overcome when riding on the flats and above 25 km/h. The force of gravity (weight) is the main resistance when we go uphill. Riding on the flat behind another cyclist saves around 20-25% of our energy output. And it can go up to 50% if we are in a peloton. Taking advantage of this opportunity is important to save as much energy as possible for the most critical moments.

This is not to encourage you to be the typical wheel-sucker cyclist who takes advantage of others. Whenever there is collaboration in a group, we are somewhat obligated to do our share and pull in front of the group equitably. But it’s one more strategy we should use to our advantage whenever possible. If there are riders who are stronger or more motivated to ride at the front of the pack, let them work for you.

Beginner cyclists often make big mistakes in eating and drinking. It is more than proven that eating (solid or liquid) regularly while pedaling is one of the best ways to delay fatigue and perform better. When racing, we must have a nutrition and hydration strategy defined in advance. Consider the duration and topography of the terrain to manage when, what and how much you need to eat. Focusing on carbs per hour is probably the easiest approach and should be practiced during several workouts in training for the race.

Optimize Aerodynamics

Except for most experienced triathletes, aerodynamics is easily ignored by many cyclists and triathletes. Optimizing aero details will give us an extra advantage that can always be welcomed. One belief is that aerodynamics are only important above 40km/h, which is false. From 25km/h and faster, aerodynamics plays a major role in speed and output. The most significant aerodynamic advantage we can get is free, as it consists of learning how to ride in a lower position on the bike.

It is very common to see cyclists riding on flat terrain, generating and wasting many watts with their arms stretched out and their heads held high. Unaware that so much power is not generating more speed since the shape of their body provides extra resistance to the air. In these cases, there is a big difference if we gradually train ourselves to ride with our hands on the front of the grips, our elbows more flexed, our head a little lower, and our elbows turned inward. It’s easy to save between 20 and 30 watts by adjusting your bike position.

In addition, if we add well-fitting clothes and an aerodynamic helmet, we will have more free speed. Even aerodynamic socks can be a little extra help that can always be welcomed. The opportunity for improving aerodynamics in mountain biking, where the average speeds are very low, is minimal, if at all worthwhile.

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Portrait Of Yago Alcalde On A Bench By His Bike In Spain
About Yago Alcalde

Yago started cycling in the 1990s, competing in mountain bike based out of Madrid, Spain. His passion for sport led him to graduate in Physical Activity and Sport Sciences from the Polytechnic University of Madrid in 2000 with a Bachelor’s degree in Physical Education and a Master’s degree in High-Performance Sports from the Autonomous University of Madrid. In addition to building his business in Spain, he has more than 14 years of experience advising cyclists of all types and levels, in addition to being an instructor for Retül University and a technician at Alphamantis. Yago is also the author of the book Cycling and Performance.

Visit Yago Alcalde's Coach Profile

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