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Make my cycling faster! Plus vite! Macht schnell!
July 25, 2006 8:19 AM   Subscribe

How should a newly-serious but just beginning road cyclist work on becoming a faster and better sprinter and hill climber?

Background:
I want to start building speed and hill-climbing ability with an eye to joining faster rides with local clubs in a year or two, and eventually racing when I reach a point at which I won't be embarassed. Mostly, I just want to be a better and faster cyclist. I'm a 6'2" 195 lb (mostly centered around the midsection) 25 year old male, currently riding a Specialized Allez with triple-chainring Shimano Tiagra/105 parts, in Philadelphia, where there are lots of good routes both flat and hilly. I ride Look clipless pedals, will soon have a computer, and I have a Bianchi Pista that I ride around town that I could use for cadence drills and whatnot.

Currently, riding flats are no problem, but I'm not fast. I'm guessing that I average about 10-12 mph, and ride 25 miles about 4 times per week, occasionally doing 45-50 mile rides on flatter terrain. Hills are difficult, even with low grades, especially over longer distances; I usually have to drop down to the granny gear. and sometimes have to stop on the way up. I know that weight loss will help on all fronts (= less mass to push forward and up). How, then, should I approach riding such that it will help me improve? In lieu of your own methods, is there a book or website that you know to be particularly helpful in this?
posted by The Michael The to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (20 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm mostly a runner these days, but training is pretty much training, and I used to be a big biker. There's a lot of specificity in training: if you want to improve at something you have to do it in order to improve. I used long climbs and interval sprints, where I'd ride hard for a while and then slower for a while then repeat several times, to improve my climbing and my speed. The intervals really did wonders for my speed. It also helps to have a really good aerobic base like the one you're developing on your flat steady paced rides.

I've read Chris Carmichael's book, and while it was a bit icky with all of the trademarked terms for things people have been doing forever, it also seemed good. It certainly accorded with the most prevalent thinking over the past two decades in running training. I don't know if there is another book where the author cares a bit more about cycling and a bit less about selling himselfTM.

Basic training precepts say that you need a good aerobic base of easy to medium stress rides that will get your heart in order, your lungs working and provide a nice base to your leg muscles. Then you need to start adding in quality training centered around the things you want to accomplish--climbs, speed work. In running, the number of hard miles one can do is quite low due to the impact and I can't say what the proper number is for cycling. The typical way to work out a schedule is to follow a hard day (say intervals or climbs) with an easy day to give yourself some time to recover.

Keep in mind that there are some limitations to what one can and cannot do. Most good sprinters aren't good climbers, which is why an awful lot of the names familiar from the first week of any Tour de France are in danger of not finishing. Climbing is in some ways even more specialized, and you don't sound, even if you lost a bunch of weight, like you've got the body to be a top notch climber. I mention these things not to discourage you but to urge you to think about your goals as you train.

Good luck. Keep riding and it will come.
posted by OmieWise at 8:35 AM on July 25, 2006


Eddy Merckx's famous advice was "ride lots." That's not as glib as it sounds.

Hills involve technique (figuring out exactly when to shift and when to stand), concentration (never slack off in the middle of a hill), and of course leg strength and lung capacity. I grew up in a flat part of the country and moved to a hilly one, and it took me a long, long time to become any good at hills. A lot of this just comes from riding up a lot of hills. If you ride the same route, you should experiment so that you can figure out specific hills, as in "I need to attack this hill mid-tempo in my 39/15, drop to the 16 right after that pothole on the left, and then stand when I hit that survey flag."

Interval training/fartleks is a classic technique for building power. Ride all-out for 60 seconds then take it easy for 60 seconds Repeat 15 times. Or do 120 on/60 off, or 60 on/30 off.
This will destroy you (don't do it at the start of a ride), but after a couple weeks, you'll notice improvements.

If you are riding 10-12 mph, well, that's pretty slow. In fact, I'd be surprised if you really do turn out to be riding that slow, once you get your cyclometer hooked up. 16 mph should be a do-able target speed, with bursts to 20+.

Your weight does not seem all that excessive for your height. Sure, you could stand to lose some, but so could we all. Your BMI is right at 25; mine is 24.
posted by adamrice at 8:53 AM on July 25, 2006


Don't aim to join faster rides in a year or two. Join faster rides now.

The simplest training upgrade is to ride with faster people and force yourself to keep up. That's not necessarily implying that you should try to hang with guys who do sub-5 hour centuries, but most clubs should have packs that aim at averaging 15mph. If you're only up to 12 now, 15 is a good target to aim for. Psychologically, it's a much more effective technique to try and keep up with people than just try to maintain a certain average speed on your bike computer.

Also, for flats, interval training is the foundation for many racer training programs. Sprint hard for 5 minutes, recover and spin for 15, etc. That helps build up strength and stamina. For climbing, start to figure out your particular climbing style. Climb the same hill a few times seated and standing and see which posture works best. Sometimes you might find that you prefer to sit and spin at high RPMs at the base of the climb, then stand and mash as you start to slow down. Everybody has a different style and pace on a hill, and you ought to figure out yours. Also, with rolling terrain, work on building up speed on the descents and using the momentum to send you over the next rise. Try to minimize the variance in pedal cadence, as alternating between the descending and climbing while wear on your stamina over several miles.

My primary cycling devotion is randonneuring, so our training regimens are a little different (emphasizing overall endurance over sustained speed) but the Ultracycling website has some pretty handy articles that aren't endurance specific.

Finally, get your computer installed and get used to riding with that before you come up with a plan. You'll find that the computer will give you a lot of information with regards to how use your gears properly for best speed. Training without the computer is, at best, relying on pure guesswork
posted by bl1nk at 8:59 AM on July 25, 2006


I've found it useful to adopt particular hills as "challenge climbs" and to gauge my progress as a cyclist in general, and in terms of each season's fitness, by seeing how well I perform while climbing them. Can you climb the hill without stopping? Can you do it without using your lowest gear? Without using your lowest n gears? Can you ride back down the hill and climb it again? My [limited] experience definitely agrees with adamrice. I know from regular riding that I usually need to shift down when I get to a certain point on a certain hill. When I start making it farther on that hill I know I'm riding stronger.

Also you should know that if you're averaging 12-13 mph over the course of your ride then you're probably doing 16-17 mph in the flats. More if your rides are hilly. If you're riding 12-13 mph in the flats then your average is slower. But don't worry, you'll speed up with time. And losing weight does make the hills easier!
posted by Songdog at 9:12 AM on July 25, 2006


The first thing you need to do is build base. Even professional riders spend a lot of time in the beginning of the year doing long endurance rides at a lower heart rate. Pick up a heart rate monitor and start out working at 65 to 75 percent of your maximum heart rate.

I take spin classes (yes I know it isn't the same) but my main instructor is also a biker plus the program we used is based on road biking. I know from my own experience how important the basebuilding stage is. Otherwise you will wind up riding anaerobically at lower and lower heart rates. What you want is to be aerobic at higher and higher rates.

Later on -about ten or so weeks later-start in working on those hills and such.

One other thing-be sure to work on your upstroke. That alone will make you much more efficient in your riding.
posted by konolia at 9:21 AM on July 25, 2006


Consider reading Joe Friel's The Cyclist's Training Bible, which is pretty much the authoritative source on how to become a better cyclist.

Second, ditch the triple. The granny gear is a crutch, and you'll be stuck endlessly spinning at a snail's pace until you can develop the musculature to turn a bigger gear. At the very least, go do some very moderate -- 5% grade, say -- climbs where you make a conscious effort not to to go to that granny gear. There's a certain point where, when you start getting fit (which is probably where you are now) that getting faster has as much to do with getting strong enough to turn a bigger gear as it does with developing cardiovascularly. Friel's book talks about a number of drills that can help you with this.

Third, come up with a training plan. If you really want to improve, it's not enough to just kind of guess at mileage and pedal around. You'll need to start doing tempo rides and intervals and strength workouts. In other words, you need to start actually training. You need to plan which days will be hard days, which days will be easy days, etc. Not that you have to plan every mile of every workout, but without a solid plan, gains will be much slower. Read all about this in the Friel book.

Finally, I agree with bl1nk that the single best thing you can do is to start riding with faster groups. There are a whole slew of solid clubs in the Philly area that run good weekly training rides. Some will be way too fast for you, but many will run moderately paced rides that will help you push yourself. (I say this because I see these groups when riding around Philly, which is where my parent's live, but I'm in New England now, and I don't really know any specifics of the scene down there. Maybe start hunting on Mid-Atlantic Bicycle Racing Association site? Anyway, get hooked up with a club now, because it will only help. There are always beginning riders coming into clubs, and there are always experienced riders willing to help those beginners. Even if you're not ready to race, they'll be able to teach you all the skills that you'll need to have when you are ready, so don't wait.
posted by dseaton at 9:21 AM on July 25, 2006


Oops. I think I linked to an older version of the book. The correct link is:

The Cyclists Training Bible, 3rd. Ed.
posted by dseaton at 9:24 AM on July 25, 2006


You're riding 100 miles a week average at only 10-12 mph? I started this summer riding at around 13mph, averaging about 40 miles per week and I'm up to about 17mph avg on my 15-20 mile rides.

You might want to rest more and actually ride less, but push yourself harder so you'll be riding faster. Instead of riding 100 slow miles a week, why not try 50 miles a week at 15+mph? Go out for just an hour every other day, and really belt out the speed and push yourself.

I bet after a month of that if you go back to 100 miles per week you'll be doing it in the 15+ mph range.
posted by mathowie at 9:34 AM on July 25, 2006


One thing that I have noticed is when climbing you should try and relax and mind your posture. Grtting your teeth and leaning foreward and swinging you bike from side to side may feel like it is the correct postition but you are really just wasting energy. Try and keep your center of gravity further back, and dont waste energy making a mean face, it seriously helps.
posted by BobbyDigital at 9:35 AM on July 25, 2006


Who are you riding with? BCP? Saturday morning from the Italian Fountain? Weekday a.m. rides?

Where are you riding? West of City Ave, in Bala? Up the hills on Jefferson Street? Email is in the profile, I might be able to give you some ideas.

I wouldn't presume to give you a training plan, but I agree that the time for group rides is now. Getting dropped a few times is all part of the experience.
posted by fixedgear at 9:45 AM on July 25, 2006


Build base. Figure out your target heart rate (get a monitor and do the test, don't rely on the chart), and ride long and slow for a while hitting your target rate. Its ironic that going slower makes you faster in the end. Make sure to have one day of faster riding. Remember, its not how fast you can sprint at the beginning of the race, but what you can do at the end.

Most importantly, get a plan. Decide how long you will work base and how long you are going to work on that. I recommend Serious Training for Endurance Athletes.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:11 AM on July 25, 2006


Serious Training is an excellent book! I'd forgotten that it wasn't running specific.
posted by OmieWise at 10:49 AM on July 25, 2006


I got my first road bike back in March of this year after doing a year and a half on a "comfort" bike (just to get myself started losing some weight before trying to actually get in shape). I can only further lend some support to the idea of getting your bike computer hooked up ASAP. I highly suggest the Gamin Edge 305 with heart rate monitor and cadence sensor (or, if you also run or want to run, perhaps the Garmin Forerunner 305 and add a cadence sensor). The Training Center software that comes with it is tolerable at best, but you can setup a free account at MotionBased where you can upload all of the ride data. You can't hide from the raw data and you'll get a great idea of how much you've improved or stayed flat in no time. They even have a Trail Network that you can use to find routes and compare your progress with others (if their data is public). You can also setup new routes (or download existing ones) and import them into your unit.

Before I got the cadence and HR sensors, I was going mostly by speed with an older Forerunner with bike attachment. The added info about target zones (speed and heart rate) along with cadence (the sensor does not lie when you decide to coast downhill for half a mile) has made me a much better rider and has enabled me to lose enough weight to start running again (making me wish I bought the new Forerunner instead of the Edge, but I made up for it with the iPod Sport *:^). You can see an example of an activity here.

Focus on getting your heart rate in shape and keeping a decent cadence (I shoot for above 75). I'm still way too slow on the hills, but am getting progressively better. I think adding a running regimen to my overall workout routing has helped as well.

If you ever want to try some Lehigh Valley riding, msg me @ the e-mail in the profile. There are lots of PHL trails over @ MotionBased, tho, that you can start with.
posted by hrbrmstr at 12:01 PM on July 25, 2006


I disagree with hrbrmstr about running: running will not help your cycling, except, possibly, when you're in base/cross-training mode (say, during the winter when riding outside is not possible and you don't want to sit on the trainer for hours and hours every day).

If you want to ride a bike fast, you need to train the muscles (and systems) that make you go fast on a bike. Your body has limited resources to devote to building these systems, and running will only cause you to develop in places where it will do very little to help your riding, while robbing some of the areas where you need to build. If you were only riding 30 miles a week, maybe running would help you build fitness and you'd get faster, but from what you've said, you already have some basic fitness. So focus on riding your bike and improving the things (the triple, for example, as mentioned above) that are holding you back.
posted by dseaton at 12:48 PM on July 25, 2006


Second, ditch the triple. The granny gear is a crutch, and you'll be stuck endlessly spinning at a snail's pace until you can develop the musculature to turn a bigger gear.

So focus on riding your bike and improving the things (the triple, for example, as mentioned above) that are holding you back.

Bullshit. Check Ebay and look at the piles of 52/39 doubles that are on auction, being replaced by the trendy 'new' compact doubles. What's a compact double? It's for non-racing cyclists that want to climb but hate the 'tourist' stigma associated with triples. What is a triple but a method of getting lower gears? I can't understand the mentality that says you should grind away at 55 rpm rather than spin up a climb at 80 or higher.

A few years ago I saw an older gray haired guy pushing an expensive new ti bike up a hill. I asked if he was ok, and he answered yes. We chatted for a few minutes, and it turned out he was a runner who became interested in cycling. He went to a local high-end road shop that we fondly call 'The Bike Nazi' and though he was buying the bike, they told him 'you don't need a triple, you just need to get stronger.' Nice advice, too bad it was a (pardon the pun) steep learning curve for this guy. Spin away.

Oh yeah, GPS? Download heartrates? Save it for later. Learn to ride in a group first. Learn to eat and drink. Listen to your body. Have fun.
posted by fixedgear at 1:10 PM on July 25, 2006


My basic Polar heartrate monitor cost about 50 bucks. Worth every penny.
posted by konolia at 1:20 PM on July 25, 2006


fixedgear: The OP asked how to get faster and specifically mentioned that when climbing, he's using the granny gear. If you want to go faster on the flats, you have to get strong enough to turn a gear that will make you go fast. No amount of spinning in a 30-25 (or lower) will help him develop that kind of muscle.

If you seriously want to race, you need a double (or at least, you need to be able to climb in the middle gear of your triple), because it's not possible to keep up -- even in the cat 5's -- on a climb if you're stuck spinning away in some absurdly low gear and not going anywhere. Riding a double now will ensure that, when the time comes, he's able to turn that 39-25 at a reasonable cadence. Also, if you want to race, you want to be able to turn your 52-12 in the sprint, something that climbing in harder gears can certainly help.

I agree that a triple is the right thing for recreational riders or someone who's touring, but I don't think that's what the question was getting at.
posted by dseaton at 1:43 PM on July 25, 2006


He's using the granny gear because he's a beginner who needs to develop his aerobic engine. Grinding up long grades overgeared is just no fun, and a good way to get hurt and lose interest. Tendons and ligaments need to get used to the stresses, not just quads. We'll have agree to disagree on this one.
posted by fixedgear at 2:39 PM on July 25, 2006


fixedgear: That's fine. I do agree -- and should have said -- that one needs to take extra care when doing workouts in harder than usual gears.

The Michael The: Riding in the middle ring on moderate climbs will help develop muscles, tendons, and ligaments. You will be able to go faster (someday). But you need to remember that you have to recover just as hard as you train, so alternate hill workouts with several days of base and easy spinning as well so your body has time to rebuild. Seriously, it's the most important thing you can do for your training.
posted by dseaton at 6:30 PM on July 25, 2006


I have a triple, and I'm not ashamed to use it. As I said above, I work to improve on particular hills, and when I can ride them without using that little chainring I know I'm getting somewhere. But I don't see myself swapping out the triple even if I don't need it to climb because on other occasions I carry my son on this bike, or run errands, and the whole equation is changed. Now if you're going to race maybe you'll need to get strong enough not to ever need the granny gear, and once you never need it then maybe you'll be good enough to benefit from saving the hundred grams or whatever that it saves you. And if you're that serious a rider you'll probably be willing to invest in a utility or touring bike and keep the granny on that. But for heaven's sake don't even think about the weight of the third ring (or any other part of your perfectly good bike), not while you have weight on your body you want to shed! It's a lot less expensive and a lot more important to take a couple pounds off your body than it is off your frame or componentry.
posted by Songdog at 8:04 PM on July 25, 2006


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