I’ll let you in on a secret. I used to be a lousy cyclist. I was slow, often unprepared, and I made excuses (*cough* OK, well, maybe I’m still lousy in that regard). But, lucky for me, I rode with some very cool cyclists who helped me along. These days, in the pursuit of “better,” I have a tendency to forget where I started out. So I thought I’d pass on some of the most helpful tips fellow riders have passed on to me. If you’re a newbie, hopefully these will help you. If you’re an experienced cyclist, a little reminder of where you started might not be a bad idea for you too.
1. Be Prepared: The Motto of a Good Cyclist
Back in the day, I headed out on a group ride with no food, no mini-tool , and only a granola bar on my stomach. What was supposed to be a no-drop, leisurely ride for cinnamon rolls (never believe it, folks), quickly turned into a hammer fest. I struggled to hang onto the back, but it wasn’t long before I bonked . . . hard. Luckily, my chain jammed with a bent link, and I had a perfect excuse to stop. I convinced the group to leave me and called for pick up.
So when you head out on a ride, with group or without, don’t go out empty–in stomach or in pockets. Make sure you eat enough for breakfast (or late the night before), and take an extra gel or bar to get you through the bonk just in case. Bring water, mini-tool, and flat fixing gear with you on every ride. Period. Well, unless you’ve got a sag wagon following you. I mean, don’t bring the whole house with you, but bring enough to keep you pedaling–especially if you like to take the long way home every now and then.
2. Know Your Gears
When I first started cycling, I lived in hill country. Just heading down my driveway I would hit 40mph (heavy bikes go fast sometimes). When I’d start a climb, I’d jam down on the shifter and click and clunk my way into an easier gear–that is except for the several times when I couldn’t shift, and did the slow-mo stop and fall over bit. There’s nothing that’ll make you think you’re bad at cycling like not knowing how and when to shift, and, no, those extra gels and the flat-fixing kit aren’t to blame.
When a fellow cyclist pointed out to me that I was shifting all wrong, I actually gained confidence. And getting a new Garmin with cadence sensor wasn’t so bad for me either. Although everyone has their own style–and some people like mashing big gears–you’ll probably want to start by sticking to that gear that feels like you can sustain it for a while–not too hard and not too easy. A cadence sensor is a great idea, and you’ll generally want to be in a gear that lets you pedal about 80-100 rpm.
Seem fast? Even though you might think you’re doing more work by spinning those gears quickly, you’re actually doing less work than pushing a tougher gear at a slower rate. It’s science. 😉
On a climb, don’t be afraid to granny out. Get on an easy gear before you can’t shift smoothly. Small chainrings are there for a reason: use them. Spin up that hill and save your legs for the days that you know you can push a bigger gear. If you get dropped, you get dropped–it happens to the pros too. Just tell the people with you that you’re more of a sprinter. As long as you don’t give up and walk when the going gets tough, you’ll be on the road to faster climbs.
3. Ride with People
I won’t lie. I like training alone. I use fewer excuses that way. But there’s just something helpful about getting dropped and blaming it on a mechanical . . . er, uh, I mean . . . sticking with a friend or a pack of riders. If you’ve got a friend who rides, ride with them. If they’re faster than you, ride with them. It’s really important to not only ride with cyclists of all skill sets, but to be pushed by others to improve. And once you’ve done this enough, there’s something kind of awesome about hanging off the back with someone and encouraging them to push harder. Cycling is the greatest sport out there. You can do it all alone, but you can also benefit from the advice and fitness (and draft) of your fellow riders.
Oh, and if you do plan on racing at some point, ride with a pack. They’ll teach you to deal with the mass chaos of a Cat 5 bunch. Either way, ride with a pack.
4. Get Your Sweat On
When you do head out on a group ride, don’t be like me. The first few times I rode–yes, it took me a few times to learn this, thanks–I drove to the start of the ride, pulled my bike from my truck, threw on a thick jacket (it was probably 68 degrees outside, which means it was either the dead of winter here in California, or an early morning ride), and joined the group. My cycling club at the time didn’t like to mess around. We took the hard road out, and we hit it fast. I made it through the first small hill, and I was toast.
It took me a few of these rides (and the courage to shrug off the, “Man, this girl showed up again” looks from the fast guys in the group–I know, right?) to realize that I can’t just hop on a group ride and expect to keep up. I need to be warmed up first. No more driving to a ride and climbing on the bike.
Everyone is different, so trial and error will help you figure this out. My coach always said, “If you’re not sweating, you’re not warmed up.” So I go with that. I need at least 20 minutes of easy riding before I’m able to push myself. Some people need more, some need less. Unless your group ride starts out with a warm-up, don’t expect them to wait for you while you struggle to get going. Show up prepared.
5. How to Get Fast
The weight-weenies will fool you. Carbon will make you fast. New wheels will make you fast. Taking those little springs off your skewers will make you fast.
You wanna know the secret to getting fast? Ride.
Yup, it’s that simple. In his autobiography, Mark Cavendish said that he was always told the secret number to riding fast was to get in 16 hours per week on the bike. Now, that may or may not be doable for you–with family, job, and other obligations, it’s not often doable for me, but the philosophy works the same way. Whether you’ve got time for intervals on the trainer, or a 6-hour ride on the weekend, just get on the bike and go!
You’ll see the benefits. And then, yes, those carbon wheels will help you shave a little time off your PR. Although, I’m not entirely sure about the skewer springs . . . .
So what’s your best advice? What helped you to be a better rider? Oh, hey. I know what I left out here. HAVE FUN! You’re on a bike!