Triathletes: Prepare to Crush Your Bike Leg

When it comes to the bike leg, the devil’s in the details.

Love it or hate, the bike leg is the biggest chunk of the triathlon. It’s an area where hard work can really pay off, or mistakes can really set you back. Simply put, it is worth doing well, and there are a handful of things you can do to get the most out of your time in the saddle. It starts with showing up and doing the work.

Put in the Time

The most fundamental piece to doing well on the bike is making sure you are consistent and put in the necessary work. The details will differ from person to person, depending on the length of race you are training for. Regardless, a few similarities emerge across the board:

  • Aim to ride 2-4 times per week.
  • Have at least one longer session each week that builds up to the length of your goal race, if not longer.
  • Working backwards off of your run numbers, aim to keep your running volume at 20 percent of your weekly cycling volume. In other words, ride 100 miles if you are running 20 miles that week.

Preparation is what will separate you from your competition. Get the miles in. [Photo credit: Pixabay]

Define Your Strengths and Weaknesses

Racing well on the bike is as much about training enough as it is about doing the right kind of training. To know how you should train, you need to know where you’re going and what obstacles may stand in your way. You need to define your goal (which you probably already have done) as well as your strengths and weaknesses. Some people are great climbers. Others are excellent at slogging it out all day at a steady pace, but not so great at short, hard efforts. You need to know where you fall.

Take the time to think about it. What are you good at? Do you excel at short, hard efforts? Can you sprint the legs off of people? How about your cornering and descending skills? It’s key to know what your strengths are so you can play to them, but it is also important know what your weaknesses are so you can work on them as needed. If you’re not a climber but have a hilly race coming up, you know what you need to work on.

Train Like You Race

As you get closer to race day, your training should increasingly resemble the actual demands you will see on race day. For example, if you are racing a sprint distance triathlon you are essentially on the rivet the whole stinking race. On the other hand, if you are doing a long distance race like Ironman, it will be a much gentler effort but a much longer duration. The point is, make sure you training efforts increasingly match what you will see on race day.

Here are some basic examples of what you should see for key work outs in each distance as you build up to race day. To get a better idea of the effort levels I’m talking about, check out my effort guide.

  • Sprint: Mainly threshold work and harder. Think of perceived efforts of 7 and above (out of 10). Interval lengths can fall anywhere between 1-20 minutes depending on intensity.
  • Olympic: A lot of threshold work and some tempo workouts (perceived effort between 6 and 8). These intervals tend to be longer than their sprint counterparts, 5-20+ minutes.
  • Half Ironman: A lot of longer (20+ minute) high tempo work with the rest periods gradually decreasing to imitate race day. Perceived effort should be around 6-7.
  • Ironman: 4-5+ hour rides with some 20-30 minute tempo efforts and varying rest intervals. Ride routes that mimic the race course. Perceived effort drops down to 4-5 with some time in 6-7.

Get a Proper Bike Fit

If you haven’t done it yet and you take this sport halfway seriously, go get a professional bike fit. Your position on the bike matters. A lot. If you are not positioned properly you are probably sacrificing some power, may not be 100% comfortable and you could even be setting yourself up for injury.

A good bike fit will look at your unique biomechanics and limitations, then position you optimally so you are comfortable and putting as much power to the pedals as possible. Too many athletes leave performance on the table simply because they have not taken the time to set up their bike properly. Don’t be that person.

Aerodynamics Matter

If your training and bike fit are on point, it’s time to chase smaller gains. One of the areas to work on is aerodynamics. Coming back to bike fit for a moment, your body position is the very first thing to consider. Your fit alone can make one of the biggest differences.

The end goal when working on your aero position is to show as little frontal surface area to the wind as possible. Primarily this means getting low, keeping your arms together on the aerobars, and tucking your head behind your hands. Working with a good bike fitter will help you find the sweet spot between the position your flexibility will allow and maximum power output.

Aside from working on your position on the bike, you can also look at upgrading equipment. You can legitimately buy speed. Here are a few upgrades to consider:

  • A new bike: A frame specific to time trial or triathlon is built with a steeper seat tube angle which essentially rotates the body forward and allows you to get into that nearly flat-backed position you that you see the pros pulling off. Tri bikes are also designed to be highly aerodynamic in a wide range of conditions.
  • Race wheels: A nice set of deep dish wheels (look for 50mm or deeper) can slice off a nice amount of time, but this assumes you can get to and maintain around 19-20 miles per hour where the benefits really come into play.
  • Aero helmet: This is another investment that definitely adds up over longer distances. This is one of the best bangs for your buck when it comes to buying speed.
  • Clothing: You’re talking very marginal differences here, but some fabrics are better than others. Start by just trying to find apparel that fits very well and doesn’t flap around in the wind. That alone goes along way.

crushing the bike leg

A good aero position (and equipment) on the bike will save you precious watts. [Photo credit: Pixabay]

Fuel and Hydrate Intelligently

Fueling is such an important aspect of triathlon racing. Just as the majority of your time is spent on the bike, the majority of your fueling happens there, too. Since you can’t really fuel while you’re swimming, and it can be harder to take in calories on the run, the bike is primarily where you make sure you are on point for the day.

Every distance has different demands when it comes to fueling. I recommend having a plan specific to the conditions you will see on race day, but here are some solid rules of thumb to start with:

  • 1-2 bottles of fluid per hour.
  • 200-300 calories per hour, primarily simple carbohydrates.
  • As it gets hotter, make sure more of your calories come in liquid form.
  • If race is shorter than 2 hours, just fuel well before and after and only do water during the race.

Stick to Your Race Pace

It’s cliché, but seriously: race your race. Triathlon is not road racing. It rewards steady, consistent efforts, not hard attacks and intense bursts. It pays to know what kind of effort you can maintain and how many matches you can burn (shorter, hard efforts). Don’t get caught up in the moment and race every person that passes you. Do not be that guy that tries to crush every climb. Be steady. Stick to your plan.

Don’t have a plan? Talk to a coach or dig in and do some research. It’s worth it!

Know Your Bike

Okay, you have your awesome bike, you got a fit and you’ve done all the work to race hard. But you can’t handle your bike? Too many times do I see incredibly fit athletes with awesome equipment who can’t descend or corner with confidence. They ride their brakes down hills or through turns, costing precious seconds and making them work much harder to regain speed. Don’t give away time because of your bike skills. Take some time to practice so that you are confident come race day and can breeze through the course.

Along with handling your bike on the road, you need to know how to handle it if something breaks. You don’t want to be stuck waiting on the neutral support vehicle to help you out. At the very least, make sure you have the right gear on board to change a tire (tubes, levers and an inflator for regular tires; sealant and an inflator for tubulars). Then make sure you know how to use it, and quickly! That means taking some time to practice in that last month before the race. Don’t let this be an area that trips you up.

Preparation Makes Your Race

Training should be harder and more intense than race day. It should prepare you as holistically as possible. Working on the ideas presented here will have you prepared for your bike leg on race day, so all you have to do is go out there and rock it. Take the time and do the work physically and mentally, and you will be well on the way to crushing it on the bike and having your best race yet.

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