by Arnie Baker, M.D.
Although your fitness is your most important aspect of success on a bike, there are some non-fitness aspects of cycling that also make a difference. If you’re already fit — or maybe you’re just looking for every possible advantage to help at your current level of fitness — consider whether or not improvements in any of these categories could help you ride better.
Excess fat is useless for an athlete. Being lean is important for climbing.
Males have the best combination of bicycling performance and general health at body fat levels around 10%, women at about 15%. Body fat levels up to 5% higher are still healthy levels, but performance may suffer.
Men and women whose body fat levels drop below 5% and 10% respectively may perform even better—but general health may suffer. Excessive leanness may reduce the body’s natural immunity. Athletes at such low levels are subject to a number of other health concerns including osteoporosis and eating disorders.
Every excess pound slows you about 20 seconds for every hour of climbing. If you are 20 pounds overweight, a century may take an extra half hour to complete.
Diet and Ergogenics
Know how to use your diet to help you, not hurt you. What to eat, when to eat. Occasionally specific supplements or medicines can help.
For events longer than one hour, fluids and calories improve performance and reduce sense of effort.
You need to keep injury-free and in good physical health.
For example, for many riders backache is a problem on repeated long climbs. Some will adapt easily with a progressive climbing program. For most, back strengthening exercises are also part of our program.
Some bikes are specifically designed for certain types of riding and races. There are bikes better suited for road riding and others better suited for triathlon, mountain biking, or touring.
The bicycle becomes an extension of your body. Use it efficiently by optimizing your bicycle position and riding style.
You need easy gears. Late in the ride, they may not seem easy. At a minimum, most riders are advised to have a 39-tooth chainring and a 27-tooth rear cog for most centuries. A triple front chainring, compact cranks, or mountain bike cogs and derailleur are preferred for epic all-day rides such as The Tour of the California Alps— Markleeville Death Ride.
Lightweight equipment can help on climbs. Lightweight road racing bikes can be five pounds lighter than standard racing bicycles. As with body weight, each pound of non-rotating weight lost will save about 20 seconds for every hour of climbing. Rotating weight (wheel and pedals) saves twice as much time per pound as fat on your body or bike frame.
Aero wheels and tires with less rolling resistance can really help on flat rides. Note however that sometimes weight is increased in an aerodynamic design, and that aero wheels are often unstable when descending, especially with crosswinds.
Bicycle maintenance improves reliability and reduces mechanical friction. A clean bike is a happy bike.
You need to know how to make your bicycle go exactly where you want it to go. This is important in descending, where crosswinds affect bike handling. Safe, controlled descending is a must. Be especially alert near the end of the ride when fatigue reduces your judgment and skill.
Bike handling skills are developed not only during regular riding and racing, but also by practice during specific skill and technique training sessions.
Use your physical talent correctly. Use your energy at the right time with a ride plan and the parts that make up the overall plan— strategy and tactics.
Most importantly, pace your effort. Do not work too hard too early.
Most riders waste a lot of their precious energy. Efficient drafting and slip-sliding on climbs save energy when riding with groups. Avoid wasting energy with side-to-side and up-and-down motions that do not propel you and your bike forward. Make every effort count.
The mental aspects can provide the crucial difference. Motivation, confidence, the setting of realistic and attainable goals, mental rehearsal, and visualization, control of arousal and anxiety can all help you perform to potential. Attending to, understanding, and working through the psychological conflicts we all experience help resolve these frequent barriers to success.
It is not just training that makes us fitter; it is the recovery from training that is crucial. It is not enough to know how to ride hard. You must know how to rest and recover. How to ride easy as well as hard. How to recover to allow a peak for major competitions. How to assure proper sleep despite the logistics of organizing the rest of life, travel and other obstacles.
As you can see, it’s not only fitness that can make you faster! Keep on top of these other aspects of cycling, and you’ll almost certainly see improvements with your riding.