A Five point formula for building skill and confidence
Descending on a bicycle should be fun, an experience full of flow and freedom as you take payback for the effort spent reaching the top of a climb. Clipping the apex of turns, feeling the bike “float” as you enter a trance-like state, reading the road ahead, scanning the scenery and smiling all the way down……..”wow, that was fun!” Sadly, for many riders (often even those who climb like Pantani) the downhill sections are filled with fear, loathing and tension and it just should not be that way.
Mastering the art of descending has its roots in confidence and to build this confidence, one must develop dependable, repeatable and ultimately “automatic” skills. So here are my five keys for going downhill fast. Master each and you will be well on the way to becoming a competent, confident descender, finding that flow that once sounded so abstract that you doubted its existence.
As with all learning, regular practice is essential. You will need to focus on just one of these keys at a time until each feels natural and automatic. Once you master all five, the confidence builds and the word “flow” will become a new and welcome addition to your cycling vocabulary.
One: Get Off Your Arse
To descend well your bike and body will, at times, need to move different amounts and even in different directions (more on that later). This is nearly impossible to achieve if you are planted on the saddle. Your weight should be on your feet (like the way a jockey is weighted on the stirrups) and the saddle should just be touching against your inner thighs. This way you can be “responsive” and the legs can act as shock absorbers, should you happen to hit an obstacle or bump in the road. On any sections of a descent where you can see ahead and the road is fairly straight, you may want to sit down for a rest, but be sure to get back on your feet, once the bends start again.
Tip 1: Don’t stand “tall” on the pedals, the technique is often described as “hovering” just above the saddle.
Tip 2: Your backside should be positioned just above the saddle for descents that are not too steep, but as the gradient increases towards (and above) 10%, you will need to shift a little further back. This is both a technique and safety adjustment that improves control and makes it far less likely that you will go over the bars (OTB) should you strike a bump or obstacle.
Two: Keep the Outside Pedal Down
This is important for two reasons; the first is to avoid striking the inside pedal on the ground as the bike leans into the corner and the second is to ensure that your weight is pushing hard down into the outside pedal, which increases traction (and control) for the rear wheel. So, for a left bend, your right pedal should be down and for a right bend, the left pedal is down. As you corner, not only is the outside pedal down, but your hips should be shifting across towards the lower leg so that most of your bodyweight is over this outside foot. You should really feel the weight on the straight (outside) leg as this is a good sign for keeping traction and control on the rear wheel.
Tip 1: When you are descending in a relatively straight line, NEITHER foot should be down. Your feet should be positioned at “three and nine o’clock” or horizontally. It is only as you approach a bend that you should adjust the position of your feet so that the outside foot is at six o’clock.
Tip 2: Never pedal through corners whilst descending. Keep the outside foot down and the inside foot up until you have exited the corner.
Three: Your Inside Hand (and shoulder) Controls the Front Wheel
Think about it this way; there are two wheels on your bike and it is important for control that each has good traction and to have good traction, each wheel must be weighted. Your rear wheel is weighted by your hips / backside and where you shift them. Whilst your front wheel is weighted by your hands / shoulders. Having your shoulders high and back (sitting too upright) takes weight off your front wheel, making it much more likely that it will skip and drift in corners. To avoid this, keep your shoulders low (hands MUST be in the drops) and chest closer to the top tube than it would usually be when riding in other situations.
As you corner, the hands / shoulders act as “counter” to your feet. In other words, the INSIDE hand / shoulder should feel weighted as you press the handlebars into the bend. You should feel like the inside shoulder is dropping and the inside hand is pressing the handlebar forward and down, like a counter-steering technique. This keeps the front wheel planted on the road and makes skipping or drifting much less likely.
Note: Skipping or drifting of the front wheel occurs when it is de-weighted and can cause it lose traction. It then begins to track out of the corner which may lead to running off the road.
Tip: Although your inside hand and shoulder press into the corner, your upper body should NOT drop inside the bike. In order to achieve this, the inside arm will straighten (just like the outside leg) although it should never be completely straight.
Four: Lean Your Bike, NOT Your Body
Cornering on a bicycle is different to doing so on a motorbike. Attempting to emulate Valentino Rossi and dropping inside the bike, knee scraping on the ground is a sure recipe for disaster. Motorbikes have a throttle and gassing the bike will cause the wheels to “bite” but we don’t have that luxury on a bicycle. Your bodyweight should remain outside the bicycle frame when cornering so that the bike leans into the corner and your body does not (or at least to a lesser degree). This keeps the tyres weighted and gives traction and control.
When you get the technique right (outside leg down / shoulders low & inside hand counter steering / bike leaning with body more upright) the bike tracks beautifully in corners which gives a confidence-boosting sense of control.
Five: Enter the Bend Late & Look Through the Corner not at it
A friend of mine calls it “target fixation” and in the context of descending, it is the tendency to fix the gaze on the corner rather than scanning more through the corner. Fixating on the corner itself tends to draw you in too early, reducing the space to exit the corner safely. As you approach a corner stay as wide as you can (away from the apex) for as long as you can. This is known as dropping into the corner late and is useful to keep in mind because almost all cornering errors start with entering a corner too tight (close the apex) and too soon. So stay wide for as long as you can, then when you do cut in to the apex of the corner, you will find yourself with plenty of room to exit the bend safely and without having to brake.
Another strategy that will help here is to practice looking ahead on the road to where you want the bike to finish up. This is referred to as “looking through the corner” and helps to create a “program” in the brain and body that improves both line and control. So, don’t stare at the point just beyond your front tyre. Instead look 15-20m ahead on the road (more if you are travelling quickly) and you will find the bike tracking much more smoothly.
A Few Words of Caution
Descending has an element of risk, even for very skilled and experienced riders. So here are a few things to keep in mind that will help to minimise the risks of descending:
Find a stretch of descent that is not too steep (4-7% works well), has a few bends and where you can ride up and down for an hour or so (a 300-500m stretch should do). Make sure you ride up easy so as not to become too fatigued. Complete a few (5-10 depending on the length of the road) repeats and each time you come down, focus on just one of the five keys I have outlined. Continue to do this (preferably each week) until each feels automatic and then take it to the road.
Descending well can dramatically increase your enjoyment of cycling. It may take a little while but it does require a strategy and practice. Once you master these five keys your riding will never be the same again and you will never look back.
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One of the best events on the Australian cycling calendar can also be the key to reaching a level of cycling you may never have thought possible.
The Peaks Challenge Falls Creek is one of my favourite events of the year. I have been fortunate enough to be present on all but one occasion since the inaugural event, either as a competitor or a support person. The atmosphere and energy, both in the lead up and on event day are right up there with some of the biggest gran fondo events in Europe. The magic of that second Sunday in March is, in itself, enough to have me returning each year, but I am also acutely aware of the broader benefits participating brings to all the other aspects of my cycling.
Here is what I mean;
I make no secret of the fact that I am a great believer in the importance of building base for all endurance athletes. The great body of both research and anecdotal evidence makes this a given and the best form / fitness / race performance will always come on the back of a great off / pre season, filled with steady kilometres and a large dose of elevation gain. The problem is that many cyclists find base training difficult. By nature this sort of riding is time-consuming and due to the absence of racing and intensity can at times, seem a little dis-connected with the "fun" and competitive drive, so important for many cyclists. Well, entering the Peaks Challenge each March, may just be the perfect solution.
Having an event focus is the key to getting motivated to train and this is even more likely when one enters these events as part of a group. The climbing and endurance nature of the Peaks event also creates just the right focus for a base training phase in a season long plan. Then throw in the perfect timing of early March and you have a bespoke solution for springboarding into your next race season with a base of strength endurance that will carry you through most of the year. Come through Peaks, rest for a couple of weeks and then begin to dose in greater intensity as part of race-focussed training weeks and you will be flying.
A colleague of mine and all-round good bloke, Steve Rooney recently took out the Div 5 road race at the Australian Masters Cycling Champs on the Gold Coast. Steve is 100% certain that the base training he did (climbing and kms) on his cycling tour in the French Alps in July, is the main reason for his golden form in October. The Peaks Challenge at Falls Creek, could do the same for you.
Sign up for the Peaks Challenge, Falls Creek, not only will you experience one of the best weekends all year but the extra motivation to train, coupled with that magic mix of kms and climbing metres, will have you riding with a strength and confidence you have never known before.
Want to get stronger? Don't do these things!
Having spent more than three decades involved in endurance sport and most of that as a scientist / coach / adviser, I have on many occasions felt a high level of frustration watching athletes make the same mistakes over and over again. So for the record, based on 30 years or so of research, observation, participation and more recently, data analysis, here are the five things you MUST avoid if you want to reach anything like your cycling potential. I implore you to have an honest look at what you have been doing, get you plan together and get off the "two steps forward - two steps back" road to nowhere. Time is precious, so stop wasting it.
One: Fall into a pattern of stop / start.
Unquestionably, the most important component of any endurance training plan (or application of that plan) is consistency. It is almost certainly true that all endurance athletes will make some progress, no matter what training plan they use, provided they simply maintain a diligent, consistent commitment to complete training sessions (75-80% compliance is excellent and rare) over an extended period of time (6-24 months). It is the repetitive disruption to training commitment that is the biggest barrier to progress. So if you find yourself in a challenging circumstance that makes it difficult to train consistently, undertake to at least complete some training sessions. Pick a realistic target (two sessions per week) and commit to it. If you are able to "keep in touch" with your fitness, good form will never be too far away.
Two: Take your training advice from your mates (or Google or a magazine or Sagan or any other "out of context" source).
One of the best (and worst) things about our modern society is the access to information. The challenge that comes with this access, is being able to wade through the "chaff" in order to get to the "gold". Some information is even subject to a "dual personality of sorts", great for some and counter-productive for others. So be rigorous with your scrutiny of information, seek out qualified, experienced people and be 100% sure that your own unique training history, age, physiology and riding goals, are a considered part of any training solution / program. Rest assured, it is entirely possible that the same training that produces a great result for your buddy, will actually send you backwards.
Three: Ride with your ego
Aside from lack of consistency (see point one above) the mistake I see most often is cyclists (almost always males), ridding too hard too often. This is usually out of a misguided view that prioritising intensity over "miles" is the most effective and time-efficient way to train. Intensity IS very important, but is only really effective if applied in the right dose, at the right time and with a targeted purpose. Intensity without base in the metaphorical "house of straw", you get your form built quickly but it is very unlikely to last long. Cycling is an endurance sport and endurance is founded on the aerobic energy system. If your riding is always short and hard, you ARE relying too much on anaerobic processes. The inevitable outcome here is a form collapse........sound familiar?
Four: Make it up as you go along
There is an old saying in the legal profession....."a person who represents themselves in court has a fool for a lawyer". If you are making up your own training plan and worse still if you are taking "piecemeal" advice from a variety of sources (even if each one of those sources is qualified), without knowing how the pieces fit together, you WILL fail. The key is knowing how each thing you do effects everything else, a diet (or nutrition plan) may be wonderful when assessed in isolation. However that same plan may become completely useless when the physical activity demands of an individual are over-layed. So get a plan (best to have ONE expert coordinate), trust it, stick to it and stop looking for shortcuts or magic solutions.
Five: Overthink the process
I am consistently astounded by how complicated athletes seem to want to make things. There are a few core principles that need to be in place, but essentially, the process of improving as an endurance athlete (and YES even the nutrition) is NOT complicated. So if you find yourself in a place where it feels complicated....STOP.... simplify things, find a coach / trainer you trust and just commit to the process. Accept that your fitness will go up and down. Accept that you cannot BUY fitness. Accept that it is going to take some time. Make a plan / Set some goals / Keep it simple. Then get out there and ride.
The Final Word
Cycling (sorry trackies) is an endurance sport. One of the most important attributes of all successful endurance athletes is PATIENCE. Yep, not VO2, not genetics, not limb-length ratio, just patience. In fact I would go so far as to say that if you do not have patience, are not prepared to wait (and work) for results, you are not going to make it to your "potential best". Find an experienced, trusted, qualified person, get a plan and be patient. Your success is ultimately in your own hands.....which may be a good (or bad) thing.
The truth may surprise you
Ever since my days dabbling in marathon running, I have known endurance athletes to use the term “junk miles”, usually whilst robustly defending the credibility of their own training regimes. In almost all cases, the junk miles to which these athletes refer are those performed at relatively low intensity as part of longer weekend rides. The insinuation is that rides performed at lower intensities are somehow “junk” and more serious riders need to focus on high intensity or “quality” sets. This blanket, generalistic attitude will mean missing the most productive and valuable part of training.
So, to set the tone, here is my criteria for what constitutes junk miles:
Why slow miles and junk miles are not the same thing.
It is in fact true that cyclists of all levels need both low and high intensity riding in order to reach their potential as an endurance athlete. It is also true that the gains often appear most obviously to come during or after a block of high intensity work. However, these gains WILL be limited and finite and largely determined by how much lower intensity (or “base”) work a cyclist has performed prior to completing the more macho, adrenalin-fuelled fast stuff. The key to success on the bike is in getting the following right:
So there it is; ride too hard too often and aerobic efficiency will suffer, but ride too slow too often and anaerobic capacity will shrink. Because solid endurance performance relies heavily on both, a good training plan will ALWAYS include slower and faster riding. It is just the amount, timing and type that will vary.
By now it should be getting clearer, any riding session may be junk, just as any may be productive, which it is most certainly not determined solely by intensity.
A very wise lecturer that helped to shape my training and coaching philosophy once said: “if your training session does not have a purpose, it is simply NOT a training session”. Later I made this a more cyclo-centric thing that goes something like this; “If your ride has no purpose, it is no longer training, it just a ride”.
Purpose, of course, does not have to mean structure. Sometimes the purpose is to completely switch off, relax and enjoy the scenery and these rides can often be the best rides of the year, by no means junk.
Here are some tips for creating purpose in your rides that have nothing to do with intensity:
De-junking your riding is not about avoiding low intensity endurance rides (all pro riders do plenty of this). It is about knowing what /how much to do and when.
Do yourself a favour, get a well-devised plan and STICK to it and please stop pretending you know what junk miles are, until you actually do.
Enjoy the ride
You may have heard professional cyclists speak of needing to accumulate “racing miles” or “race days” in order to reach their best form. It may also seem a foreign idea for cyclists used to plugging away on training rides as a way of building form for a race or event.
So what it is about racing that seems to have the potential of lifting cycling performance to a new level and is it something that may work for the average rider? Well the answers can be a little bit complicated of course, so it first may be useful to look at how racing is a little unique in comparison to most other forms of cycling:
Of course, some riders are uniquely capable of simulating most of these characteristics in training. It is also possible to simulate some of these things using group riding sessions. In recent times Team Sky have developed a reputation for dosing in “race-like” training sessions at training camps and Sky riders have been known to say that “racing is easy after being at camp”.
I would encourage all cyclists to try some racing and/or incorporate some “race-like” intensity into their training plans. The key is to know how and when to do it, because although racing can be of enormous benefit, too much emphasis on this type of riding can erode aerobic fitness and endurance, which inevitably leads to a dip in performance over the medium to long term.
So, you may want to try some of the following strategies:
Enjoy the ride (race).
More effective than drugs, just a little less sexy
There are two sides to any coach / athlete relationship and with those sides comes two different perspectives. This is never more relevant (or important) as when the inevitable happens and the athlete's progress stalls, or is simply not moving quickly enough (again "quickly enough" will be matter of perspective). This is why open and regular communication between coach and athlete is vital because coach may well have a plan in place, possibly even be expecting some stalling in performance that is all part of the long game, but all the athlete sees (feels) is a drop in performance. When both parties are on the same page, harmony and co-operation is far more likely.
In order to keep relevance here, most of the references and examples are specific to endurance cycling, sports with different performance parameters are well outside the scope of this blog. So on with endurance cycling. It is also worth keeping in mind that the word "coach" can often be substituted with "training program", as many riders don't in fact use a coach but source and download training plans from a variety of sources.
I have some favourite examples that highlight the importance of year on year progress and building towards reaching the full potential of the rider. Miguel Indurain is a Spanish cyclist that won the Tour de France five years in a row, between 1991 and 1995. Most cycling fans know this but far fewer are aware that 1991 ("Big Mig's" first title) was in fact Indurain's SEVENTH participation in the race, hardly an instant sensation. Obvously many years were spent in diligent and consistent training, no doubt there were many occasions where his progress stalled, or even went backwards. But in the end, year on year progress led Indurain to the very top of the cycling world. Then there is our own Richie Porte, who actually first rode the TDU (for UniSA) in 2008 and placed 7th overall in his first Grand Tour, the Giro in 2010, where he also won the young rider category. It has taken close to a decade of year on year development for Richie to become a genuine contender for the overall title in the Grand Tours
Whilst the examples of Indurain and Porte highlight the importance of consistency, building and patience, the path of the professional cyclist is always a little different to that of the weekend warrior or even the serious amateur racer. There are however some mistakes worth avoiding for ALL cyclists trying to improve and some foundation principles to keep firmly routed in your approach to training.
Stay Safe and Train Smart
Perfecting the aerobic / anaerobic dose
When an athlete performs any kind of endurance exercise, there will be energy contributions from both aerobic and anaerobic pathways. Most cyclists, runners and triathletes seem to know this and certainly know the feeling of being too long in a highly anaerobic state (in the RED). Each pathway has it's unique advantages for bike riders, aerobic metabolism is highly energy efficient, powering muscular activity for long periods of time, but unable to fuel the super high intensity efforts required for power climbs, sprinting etc. So this is where anaerobic metabolism has the edge, producing energy rapidly to fuel high level exertion, but of course there is a cost, which is the rapid onset of fatigue. Cyclists need both systems working well, but the cruel reality is that over-using either of these pathways will erode the other, so getting the balance or "dosing relationship" right is paramount for increasing endurance performance and building reliable consistent form.
A certain amount of muscular work requires a fixed amount of energy, so it stands to reason that the more energy supplied anaerobically, the less is contributed aerobically and vice versa. As in all aspects of physiology, the more one's system utilises a particular process, the better the body becomes at doing it. Conversely, should certain processes be under-utilised, the capacity for using these processes is eroded. The bottom line is that over-reliance on either of the two metabolic pathways, will negatively impact on the other.
This sounds simple enough but the process becomes far more complicated if you consider that athletes vary greatly in terms of which points on the intensity continuum they become anaerobically dominant. Some cyclists can remain highly aerobic VERY close to threshold (this means they have a very large zone two) whilst others become significantly anaerobic well below threshold. A big aerobic capacity also pushes the threshold point much closer to maximum, which is the holy grail for endurance cyclists.
Put simply, training zones cannot be accurately established using simple percentages of threshold / FTP and without defining training zones more precisely, it will be almost impossible to get the training dose right. The chart above shows an athlete with diminished aerobic capacity and a small zone two. Zone three represents a significant shift towards anaerobic metabolism and occurs at relatively low power / heart rate for this rider. Knowing this is critical for getting the training dose right and avoiding continual erosion of aerobic efficiency, a certain recipe for an over-training disaster.
There is no doubt that the most common mistake made in respect of training dose and the balance between aerobic / anaerobic load is an over-emphasis on anaerobic work. The notion of "go til you blow" will work for short periods, but has no future, in terms of building reliable, consistent form. The key is knowing your training zones and understanding that the most important attribute in developing good form (apart from being genetically blessed) is patience and control.
Get tested and don't just rely on predicting your zones through an FTP conversion, this error is the main reason that similar training plans produce vastly different outcomes for cyclists. Build power through understanding your body and it's capacity for adaptation.
Enjoy the Ride
The ScyclePro Team
A smart training model that produces big gains
Recently I was struck by the title of a Strava ride completed by a friend of mine, which went something like this; "same hard effort, same slow time........". Now the title is relevant for two reasons;
The move towards greater polarisation of training has been gaining momentum in sports science for almost a decade and there is now no denying the evidence. Less than 15% of your total training load (TTL) should be performed within your threshold zone. The rest is distributed in the zones either side of threshold. The key for all athletes is to identify their true effective training zones (ETZ) through comprehensive assessment. Only then can one know how and when the training loads should be allocated within the training plan.
Finally, not all athletes with the same threshold have the same ETZ, so where FTP can be a useful gauge of progress, it is ineffective for determining training dose and timing, only a comprehensive assessment of your physiological profile can do that.
So if you truly want to make progress with your riding, please try to avoid ego-based groups where the only goal seems to be "go til you you blow" and get yourself a qualified assessment. There is an old adage in distance running that goes like this; "you don't train for a marathon by running marathons". The same goes for cycling, you simply cannot boost your threshold by continuously training at (or near) threshold.
It's time to employ some smart athlete thinking and get on a plan that is built around he science and ensures you get a positive result from all the time, effort and money you invest.
How to maximise the effectiveness of this wonderful tool, build motivation and lift performance.
More and more cyclists, of all levels, are making the significant financial outlay and purchasing a power meter. In my experience, most of these expensive gadgets are reduced to nothing more than something (else) to stare at whilst riding. So how can cyclists of all levels make the most of their power meters and begin see some real performance gains in their riding?
Broadly speaking, a power meter is used in two ways:
Power meters produce both the "raw" power numbers and analysis metrics that allow you to work at improving your mechanical efficiency on the bike. Pedal smoothness and torque effectiveness are indicators of how efficiently a rider applies force through the full pedal stroke and setting up a screen that shows these numbers can be a great way to receive instant feedback when doing technical or drill sessions on the bike. This sort of data can also be used to identify a "cadence sweet spot" for a cyclist. This is the cadence zone where efficiency data remains close to historical peaks, almost all riders have an obvious point (as cadence increases) where these numbers begin to plummet.
Another area where power data can be extremely helpful is with a trend comparison between raw power (let's say average power) and normalised power for longer rides or segments. Generally speaking, low NP in comparison to average power means a cyclist is dosing energy in an inconsistent or "surging" pattern (on VERY hilly courses this may not be so). This can be a great cost (energetically) to the rider and negatively impact on endurance.
Using a power meter to both identify these inefficiencies and then provide instant (in ride) feedback is one of the most powerful applications available to cyclists in decades.
Cycling fans have become used to seeing riders from Team Sky sit calmly pacing themselves, watching their power meters whilst rider after rider attacks impulsively. Nine times out of ten, the rider will be brought to heel by the steady tempo set by the men in black (and blue). This is a fine example of how a power meter allows every cyclist to pace themselves, dose their energy evenly and avoid prolonged excursions into the red zone (which is an endurance killer). Ultimately ALL riders will climb a hill/mountain faster if they are aware of their most efficient climbing intensity and a power meter is the only way to monitor this.
The final and most powerful application of the power meter is in the defining and setting of the power targets in training sessions to ensure that loads are well matched to rider's level, physiological characteristics and training goals. A test can define all of these things and once the structure is in place, the power meter becomes the ultimate weapon in the smart cyclists arsenal. The key is to have a well-structured and robust test, without it, your power meter is once again reduced to an expensive toy.
I can hear the words as clearly today as when they were first spoken in 1985 (yes I am that old); "if you don't test the athlete prior to building the training progressions, you are wasting both your time and that of the athlete". I was in my first year of an Exercise Science degree and those wise words were delivered by the wonderful Professor Frank Pyke. Dr Pyke was an imposing character and carried a reputation in our field like few others. That strongly-delivered message from 32 years ago has been validated many times and shaped my approach to coaching ever since.
It may be stating the bleating obvious, but all of us humans are different and in so many ways. One of the "ways" is physiology and the response we are likely to have to any form of training. The fact is that no two cyclists respond in the same way (or at the same rate) to a block of training, this is the case even if both riders have exactly the same FTP. It is equally true that the ONLY way to even get close to predicting how a rider will respond to training and what type / amount of training to which he/she is best suited is to TEST. Which brings us back to Dr Pyke.
Testing is the cornerstone of any effective training plan and without testing, training sessions are based on a guess (an algorithm is just a fancy way to make an educated guess). Lack of testing is the main reason that some cyclists do well with certain types of training and others do not. Sports scientists test athletes before implementing training in order to both set a reference level for performance and to identify key elements of physiology on which the training is based. Different results yield different plans.
To get the most out of your training you (or your coach) will need:
Without these elements your training is based on a guess, no matter how educated that guess may feel.
Consider whether one, or more applies to you:
As the wonderful Professor Pyke (rest his soul) once said, "if you don't test, you are wasting both yours and the athlete's time".
Get tested now, be smart and stop trying to buy, or short cut, improvements in your riding performance.
Enjoy your ride