How to Become a Better Cyclist, Part 2: Performance Riders

By Coach John Hughes

You want to become a better cyclist. But what does “a better cyclist” mean for you?

Better often means wanting to ride faster, or harder, or stronger. These are hallmarks of a roadie who might consider himself or herself a "performance rider." Here are some examples of how performance riders might want to improve:

  1. You do 30- to 40-mile rides at 13 mph and you want to increase your cruising speed to 14 mph.
  2. You ride with the C group on the Saturday club rides and you want to move up to the B group that averages 16 – 18 mph on two-hour weekend rides.
  3. You want to expand your choice of half-day rides to include hillier routes.
  4. You want to set a personal best climbing Mt. Terrible.
  5. Your goal is to average (at least) 20 mph in the club’s fall 25-mile TT.

What each of these has in common is that the improvement in performance comes from working on all six of these Success Factors, not on your favorites or the easiest:

  1. Planning and goal-setting
  2. Effective training
  3. Sound nutrition
  4. Mental techniques
  5. Proper equipment
  6. Proficient skills

The Success Factors Most Important to Performance Riders

In this series of How to Become a Better Cyclist columns, I’m describing how these Six Success Factors apply to three different kinds of riders:

  1. Recreational, Health and Fitness Riders — Last week I discussed how the Success Factors apply to riders who want to increase the relative volume of their riding.
  2. Performance Riders — This week I’ll cover how the Success Factors apply to riders who want to increase the relative intensity of their riding.
  3. Endurance Riders —Next week I’ll talk about how the Success Factors apply to riders who want to increase the relative duration of their rides.

1. Planning and goal-setting

The most important part of planning is setting achievable goal(s). Achievable goals means S.M.A.R.T. goals.

  1. Specific, defining what “better” means for you.
  2. Measurable, in time or distance.
  3. Attainable, within your capacity given your current conditioning.
  4. Realistic, given the time you have to train and your other responsibilities.
  5. Time-oriented, by a certain date. 

Which of the above general goals (A through E) is most similar to how you would like to improve your performance? Take few minutes to sharpen your goal into a S.M.A.R.T. goal.

Then plan how you’ll work on each of the following Success Factors over the next several months. Don’t try to change everything at once. Prioritize the Success Factors: which will make the biggest difference in your performance? Focus your time and energy on that factor, and after you’ve made significant progress then move on to the next Success Factor.

2. Effective training

Attaining each of the above goals (A through E) requires developing more relative power and speed, relative to your current power and speed. This means doing the right kind of hard workouts, not just going as hard as possible. Different levels of intensity training yield different benefits. For each of the above goals here are the appropriate types of intensity training:

  1. To increase your average cruising speed do intensity workouts at a tempo pace when you can talk but can’t whistle (Zone 3 by heart rate or power).
  2. To ride with the faster group, do intensity workouts at the same intensity as the faster group's harder efforts.
  3. To ride hillier routes, do intensity workouts to increase your power.
  4. To set a PR up Mt. Terrible, do intensity workouts at your target intensity but with efforts that aren’t as long as your planned PR.
  5. To excel in a time trial, do intensity workouts at your target speed for the time trial.

3. Sound nutrition

Last month I wrote about a High-Carb vs. High-Fat Diet. Both work for endurance riding. However, the American College of Sports Medicine’s 2016 Nutrition and Performance Position Statement concludes that on a high-fat diet ‘”performance of exercise at the higher intensities is impaired.”

To ride hard most of your energy should come from glucose (from carbs) instead of fat.  Glucose is stored as glycogen until it is needed, and your body’s capacity to store glycogen is limited.

Because glycogen stores are limited, a diet rich in carbohydrates is important. Carbs include fruit, vegetables, legumes and grains as well as bread, potatoes and pasta. Last week, I recommended eating six times a day: breakfast, mid-morning snack, lunch, mid-afternoon snack, dinner, bed time snack. Most of the calories in each of these should come from carbs.

4. Mental techniques

Intensity workouts mean riding harder than you are used to riding, harder than is comfortable. This requires focus — if your mind wanders, your intensity will drop. My column On the Rivet: Focus describes how to develop this mental skill. Intensity training also requires the discipline to get on your bike and do the workout. More importantly it requires discipline to do the workouts at the right intensity for your goal. It also requires the discipline not to overdo it — you should always finish an intensity workout feeling like you could do more.

5. Proper equipment

If you don’t have a fleet of different bikes in your garage but just one steed, what can you do? The simplest and most important change is to dial in your bike fit depending on your goals! Then select components that help you to meet your goals.

Let’s look at the different goals:

  • Increasing your cruising speed from 13 mph to 14 mph for three-hour rides. Aerodynamics aren’t very important at this speed, while rolling resistance is, so your choice of tires makes a difference. Because aerodynamics aren’t important, your bike fit should emphasize comfort.
  • Moving up to the B group from the C group on two-hour weekend rides. Since these are group rides, aerodynamics are less important than the weight and responsiveness of your bike. You could have a more aggressive racing-style bike fit. Lighter wheels would reduce the weight and help you accelerate faster to stay with the group. Since the rides are relatively short, you could also choose a lighter, less comfortable saddle.
  • Expanding your choice of rides to include hillier routes. Find ways to lighten your bike without sacrificing comfort, for example, lighter water bottle cages but not a lighter saddle
  • Setting a personal best climbing Mt. Terrible. Obviously reducing weight is key. In addition to lighter components take off everything that you don’t need for the hill climb: the big ring, the front derailleur, the bottle cages, the seat bag (just a tube and tire levers in your pocket), etc.
  • Averaging (at least) 20 mph in the club’s fall 25-mile TT. Aerobars and your riding position will make the biggest difference, followed by a skin suit and aero helmet.

6. Proficient skills

The most essential skill is determining your personal threshold pace, the pace that you can sustain for the ride so that you don’t blow up, and learning to pace yourself at that pace.

You’ll also perform better if you develop specific bike-handling skills for each of the five different goals:

  • Increasing your cruising speed isn’t just about getting stronger and faster, but also learning to ride the tangent on curves to reduce the total distance traveled and to corner safely with minimal braking.
  • Riding with a faster group requires learning better group riding skills.
  • To ride hillier routes you need to learn whether you climb better in or out of the saddle, and also how to descend safely.
  • Setting a PR in a hill climb is all about getting the maximum upward progress with minimal wasted energy, i.e., riding with a quiet upper body and applying power around the stroke, as well as learning whether you climb better in or out of the saddle.
  • Time trialing is similar to hill climbing but also involves the skills of accelerating immediately at the start and learning the fastest line at the turnaround and other technical aspects to preserve speed.

Rather than just working on the appropriate skills when you’re out riding, you’ll improve more if you devote part of your time to mastering the specific skills that you need.


Next week I’ll describe how the Six Success Factors apply to Endurance Riders who want to ride farther whether it’s a personally designed 100K, organized century, brevet or multi-day tour.

How Can You Use the Six Success Factors?

How you can use the Six Success Factors to improve is described in my new eArticle, How to Become a Better Cyclist: The Six Success Factors, which launches today. The 36-page eArticle explains in detail how to apply each of the Six Success Factors to your cycling. Roadies have different goals: riding more for improved health and fitness, covering more miles this year, climbing better, 
riding with a stronger group on the weekends, finishing a specific ride or setting a personal best in a particular event. Like all our eArticles, it will sell for only $4.99; only $4.24 for our Premium Members with their automatic 15% discount.

This new article is also included in the new bundle of five eArticles The Best of Coach Hughes: 5 eArticles to Make You a Better Cyclist. The new bundle, also launching today, includes:

  • How to Become a Better Cyclist: The Six Success Factors – A new eArticle totaling 36 pages.
  • Your Best Season Ever, Part 1: A 32-page eArticle on how to plan and get the most out of your training. Published in 2015. 
  • Intensity Training 2016: A 41-page eArticle with the latest information on how to use perceived exertion, a heart rate monitor and a power meter to maximize training effectiveness. 
  • Optimal Recovery for Improved Performance: A 16-page eArticle with 10 different recovery techniques illustrated with 14 photos. Published in 2011. 
  • Eat & Drink Like the Pros: A 15-page eArticle of nutritional insights from pro cycling teams. It contains a dozen recipes for you to make your own food and sports drinks. Published in 2011.

The Best of Coach Hughes: 5 eArticles to Make You a Better Cyclist totals 140 pages and will be available starting today at the special price of $15.96 (this is a special 5-for-the-price-of-4 discount). 

The Premium Member bundle price of $13.57 is a savings of $11.38 off the full price! Non-Premiums save $8.99 off the cover price vs. purchasing all 5 articles individually.

Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John's full bio.


The Latest VIDEOS & PODCASTS (check main navigation Categories at top of page for more videos)