There are a million and one pieces of cycling gear out there that maybe, possibly, might make you a better road cyclist. How quick are we to open our billfolds for the latest bits of carbon to shave weight from our road bikes just because we believe it might make us go faster?
I’m just as guilty as anyone when it comes to focusing my attention on things that could help my riding when what I need to do is look in the mirror. There are three techniques I have used over the years to improve my road cycling, and they all center on the body and how it’s used on the bicycle. No purchase is necessary.
Tip #1 Spin to win.
I recently went out on a road ride with a friend. Our fitness levels are similar, but she hadn’t ridden in a while due to pregnancy. I set us up at a moderate pace around 28 km/h. My cadence was around 95-100 rpm. When we arrived at the first traffic light she indicated that she was having to brake to stay behind me.
I turned up the heat for the next three miles to about 33 km/h keeping my cadence at about 95rpm. When she came around to take a pull she mentioned pain in her knees and that she was tired. It took just one glance at her drivetrain to see the problem – she was in the 53×11 with a cadence of about 75.
This is an extreme example, but it highlights one of the most important things to remember when riding: cadence.
Get your cadence up to 100.
- Next find a gear that allows you to comfortably maintain this cadence.
- If your rear end is bouncing on the saddle, shift up one gear.
- If you have trouble maintaining 100 rpm, shift down one gear.
This technique works well in the flats and rolling hills – and yes, it means shifting a lot. (On a side note, keeping your cadence up also is better for overall aerobic fitness. If some weight loss is part of your cycling program, you’ll see greater success by improving your spin). The goal is to be able to keep your cadence up on those long climbs, and when you can, those climbs that once seemed daunting won’t be nearly as tough.
Tip #2 You’re not a ballerina so don’t point your toes. Make circles not squares.
Sometimes when cyclists start to hone in on their spin they have an involuntary tendency to slightly point (or point) their toes downward. I see this especially in runners who also ride–myself included.
The most efficient way to transfer power from your legs to the cranks is with a flat platform, in other words, keep your feet flat. When your feet are level the entire way through the pedal stroke, you optimize power output using both the downforce and up force on each stroke.
It’s easy to stomp on the pedals with your heels a little tilted down (especially when your cadence is too low), but where’s all that power you could be getting on the backside of the stroke?
Think of your cranks as the faces of two clocks and the crank arms are each a hand on the clock. When your foot arrives just before the “6 o’clock” position, you should be starting to pull on that pedal rather than push. It will feel like you are scraping mud off the bottom of your shoe. Scrape that mud until your foot is just before the “12 o’clock” position and then it’s time to push again.
With this technique, you’ll quickly realize any imbalance between the quadriceps (muscles that do the pushing on the pedal stroke) and the biceps femoris and semitendinosus muscles commonly known as the hamstrings (muscles doing the pulling).
Combining a bright cadence with using the entire pedal stroke will help get the most out of your legs.
Tip #3 A strong upper body and core.
After I suggested my riding partner’s cadence, she experienced immediate improvement, and she asked how to fix her aching back and numb hands.
The numb hands are an easy fix. Don’t lock your elbows. Many times I see riders on the hoods or the tops with their elbows locked in a hyper-extended position. Not only does this contribute to numbness, but it also is a very dangerous habit. If you hit a bump in the road and your elbows are locked, I guarantee that your hands will fly off the bars or the hoods (because you have no way to absorb the shock) and you will crash.
Fixing the sore back and strengthening your arms takes a little time in the gym or at home. (A stronger core and upper body will give your more strength so you don’t feel like you have to lock your elbows to hold yourself up on the bike.)
- Strengthen your abdominals — crunches, leg lifts, and my favorite, the Russian twist.
- Strengthen your back — back extensions with resistance as well as planks.
- Strengthen your arms — push ups for the biceps and tricep dips.
One of the ways I used to test my core strength on the bike was to get into my riding position with my hands on the hoods, then keeping my body in the same position, I’d move my arms and clasp my hands behind my back and keep riding for as long as possible. Try it out. Whatever gets sore first – back or abs – needs more work.
Putting it all together
Back out on the road, my friend and I were able to lay down a quick 60 in two hours with a rest stop. Getting her cadence up, her feet flat, and unlocking her elbows unleashed energy and fitness she didn’t know she had.
Even after years of cycling, on days when I’m not feeling so great, I check cadence, consciously analyze a few crank revolutions to make sure I’m pushing just as much as I’m pulling, and quickly take my hands off the bars and check out the core. It’s usually a pedaling issue and I drop my heel a bit and that output wattage I was missing reappears.
Money can buy a great many things that can help your riding, but investing in yourself – specifically your form – will yield the greatest returns and more podium appearances on race day.