Want to completely overhaul your cycling? Then bike racing may be the ticket. Partly in homage to the Tour de France, partly because it’s a good idea, former pro cyclist and coach Robbie Ventura turned some triathletes into cyclists for a season. When they came back to triathlon, they not only blew away their bike PBs, they ran faster with stronger cycling legs.
In addition to practicing cornering and drafting, you should learn three major skills: tactics, positioning and surging. Here’s how:
Test Race Tactics
Race tactics and energy conservation may be the toughest things to learn as a triathlete in bike racing. These are just as important as developing power and fitness—maybe more.
Start with some hard group rides, which can serve as a testing ground to practice your race tactics. (Note: Before you attack your local group or sit on the strongest guy like a barnacle, make sure they’re accepting of your antics.)
Experiment early on in your racing career, focusing on building experience versus results. Instead of sitting in the same position week after week, focus on specific tactics each race: Maybe one race you try to break away or maybe some races you conserve the entire race and attack with a couple of miles to go to try for the solo win. As you build your toolbox of tactics, you will start to understand the flow of racing and you may surprise yourself!
Don’t Be That Guy
Reality check: Roadies do not care that you have a 45- minute run after your group ride. Avoid common triathlete stereotypes by leaving your multisport plans—and these items—at home:
1. Aero helmet
2. Compression socks
3. Bento box
4. Tank top jerseys of any kind
5. Lingering race number on helmet
Nail Your Position
While tactics are learned with experience, one principle that does not change is where you position yourself in the pack. Being “near the front” but not “on the front” is the sweet spot. This will keep you safer, allow quicker reactions to attacks and limit stressful accelerations out of every turn.
The key to good positioning is getting there first. This might require a good start or crafty bike-handling skills, but for most, it simply takes a hard effort to get to the top 10. Once you’re there, maintaining that position also takes some effort, but as you learn the flow of the race, keeping it should take less and less energy. You will become smarter and smoother about surfing the “peloton rotation.” This is the way I describe maintaining position when everyone in the field wants to be in the front. You can “surf” on the outside of the peloton by constantly passing people as you start to feel pressure of being passed (the wave). This works best from the outside, so you can pass the riders in front of you as riders come up on your outside. It requires good pack awareness and a keen sense of people coming up from behind. If you can manage to concentrate the entire time, you can master this skill.
Master The Surge
In the bike leg of a triathlon, you determine how hard you want to go and keep accelerations to a minimum to save your legs for the run. For the most part, maintaining steady-state power over the course of the bike leg will maximize your speed over the given distance. In road racing, pace is determined by others—“your own pace” is not an option. You are constantly going over your limit to stay with the group and benefit from its massive draft. Unlike triathlon, you must surge to survive a bike race.
High-intensity surges do huge damage to the muscles and anaerobic energy systems, so it takes training to get used to these efforts. These are the same intervals I believe triathletes should be doing anyway—if you’re bike racing, you do them more frequently and during the specificity period of your training. I am a big believer that triathletes need to build overall range of power, regardless of the race distance they’re focused on.
Train To Race
To start, do hard (close to all-out) 60- to 120-second intervals with complete rest, which is necessary to hit the highs needed to improve. Once you get stronger, and as you get closer to the event, you can decrease the rest time and/or increase the intensity of the rest to make it more race-specific. Start with no more than 15–20 minutes of total interval time.
Hard group rides will force you to surge significantly more than training on your own. The group will also be a bit less predictable, forcing you to go hard at random times, thus changing up the interval duration and recovery parameters.
Bike Racing 101
Where do I start?
You need a road bike. They are stiffer, lighter and more comfortable in an upright position. Plus, tri bikes are illegal in road races anyway.
What should I know before signing up for my first race?
Make sure you are competent and comfortable on your local group rides. The competency comes not only from the necessary endurance and power, but bike skills and pack etiquette as well. Drafting, cornering and situational awareness are all very important to being a safe and effective bike racer. Make smooth movements rather than quick ones and hold a constant line through a turn rather then sweeping through the width of the road as you can in a triathlon.
What are the best events for first-timers?
A time trial is an easy one, but that’s more like a triathlon than a bike race. Start with safe road races on courses that are less technical.
How do I “learn” to race?
Watch how an experienced rider navigates the peloton, the lines he takes, how he spends his energy and how he sets up for attacks or the finish.
Robbie Ventura is a former pro cyclist who spent four years on the U.S. Postal Service team. Nowadays, he and his world-class team provide training expertise for more than 300 endurance athletes through Vision Quest Coaching.