By Chris Carmichael Founder and Head Coach of CTS
All riders have individual strengths and weaknesses, and sometimes they become apparent on specific types of terrain. Maybe you’re great on long and steady climbs, but you struggle on short and punchy ones. Or perhaps you thrive on the on-off nature of riding hills but struggle with the constant pedaling on long flat rides. To help you prepare for your next challenge, here is a guide to the best ways to ride faster, everywhere.
Riding Faster Uphill
This is the area people often focus on the most, but you have to be careful. Focusing too much on climbing can take away from your ability to ride well on the flats and rollers. Training for climbing is a huge subject, for cyclists who have already been are beginning to train or have already been doing climbing workouts, here are ways to get the best performance from your fitness.
Don’t start too fast
Many riders charge the bottom of a hill or sustained climb and then fade badly before reaching the summit. The goal is to meter your effort so you have power for the top third of the ascent, because cracking near the top will cost you more time than you can gain at the bottom. This becomes crucial when you’re in a group because you want to go over the top with other riders so you can draft and work together after the descent.
Find a rhythm
Especially for longer climbs, settle into an intensity level, breathing rate and cadence you can maintain. If you’re panting uncontrollably you’re riding at an unsustainable level. For prolonged climbs your breathing will be deep and labored when you’re near your maximum sustainable power, and you should able to speak in short phrases.
Mashing too big a gear fatigues your leg muscles quickly, and spinning a ridiculously light gear is inefficient, has a higher oxygen cost, and spikes your heart rate. For most riders, the balance point between these extremes falls somewhere around 80-90rpm.
Best Workout: 5x3min PowerClimb
Long climbing repeats and other lactate threshold intervals are the cornerstones of climbing workouts. A great workout to add to your repertoire is a 5x 3minute PowerClimb workout. Each interval should be at about 120-125% of lactate threshold power, and you should take 5 minutes of easy spinning recovery between efforts. The idea is to pace your three-minute climb so your power output and pace start fading in the final 20-30 seconds. This means you don’t want to start out at full gas, crack at 60 seconds, and then ride the rest at an aerobic power output. You want to be above threshold the whole time. These efforts help build power and tolerance for short accelerations and changes in pitch on hills.
Riding Faster Downhill
Whether you’re coming down a mountain pass, pacing yourself during a gran fondo, or pushing the pace at the local group ride, descents are free speed. Don’t give up time you worked hard to gain on the preceding climb.
Get in the drops
Descend with your hands in the drops for better aerodynamics and weight distribution, but forget the super tuck. You want a low position, but don’t sit on the top tube. That position was banned by the UCI for a reason, and those riders were skilled than you. Not only are the risks reasonably high, but is also takes more energy to hold those positions than to keep your rear on the saddle and lower your shoulders. If your bike fit doesn’t enable you to comfortably descend in the drops, which is a problem we see frequently, then you need your fit adjusted.
Don’t ride the brakes
You shouldn’t ride descents with reckless abandon, but many riders make the mistake of riding the brakes too much on downhills. If you’re uncomfortable with speed, seek instruction to improve your skills and body position. Keep your gaze far forward to smooth out your line (like walking a balance beam) and take the time to learn how powerful your brakes are. Disc brakes, for instance, enable riders to brake later before turns, and from higher speeds. Always adjust your speed before a corner, rather than in the middle of it.
Weight outside foot and inside hand
The basics of cornering at speed are to look through the corner to where you want to exit (as opposed to looking at the apex of the corner), extend your outside leg and focus your weight through your outside pedal, and push your inside arm into the turn. With your pressure centered on the outside pedal and inside handlebar, your body will stay more upright while the bike leans more into the corner. This keeps your center of gravity closer to the line of your tires, which helps enhance traction. To tighten the line of your turn, apply more pressure with your inside hand. Read more on descending safely and confidently.
Riding Faster on Flat Ground
Even if you’re a great climber, you still need to be able to cover the ground between climbs at a good pace. And if climbing isn’t your strength, then the flats are where you can excel.
If you’re alone, don’t fight the wind
For the sake of your overall speed, don’t get in a fight with a climb or the wind. They’ll win. If you dig too deep before the climb is over, you’ll slow to a crawl. If you struggle against the wind on a long ride, you’ll just run out of energy sooner. Now, if you’re racing a time trial, digging deep into the wind is important because you can make up the most time during the hardest parts of the course. But if you’re on a long endurance ride, especially solo, gauge your effort on the power output or intensity level you can sustain, rather than the speed you want to go. It may feel painfully slow at times, but in the long run it’s faster than exhausting yourself and then crawling along at half power.