On the face of it the equation for cycling performance can seem pretty straight forward, especially at the amateur gran fondo level when every man is out there for himself and there’s no team tactics or strategy to consider. It’s easy to fall into a trap of thinking it’s all just about power to weight and VO2 max.
Whilst these factors are very important, the reality is a bit more complex when you’re out on the road in the middle of a stressful peloton with changing weather conditions. An ability to draft is a prerequisite to a good hard day’s racing, but here are a few other hints and tips which could help you stay at the front of the pack:
1. Breathe right and relax
Perhaps with the exception of a sprint finish in the last 200m of a race, at no times should you be overbreathing or hyperventilating. Doing so will mean you are blowing out too much carbon dioxide, which the red blood cells need in order to release oxygen into the tissues, muscles and organs. During a descent or the middle miles when you’re ticking along in the group with moderate ease, you should try nasal breathing. This will not only help to optimise oxygen release through appropriate blood CO2 levels, it will also:
- Engage diaphragmatic breathing and associated states of calm and awareness which are important to help avoid crashing and unnecessary stress and fatigue on the nervous system.
- Produce nitric oxide which is a vasodilator (widens your blood vessels)
- Warm the air prior to it entering the lungs
When you are going for full gas on a climb, maintain deep, controlled diaphragmatic breathing but keep your mouth open with a relaxed jaw to maximise the volume of gas exchange with every breath.
2. Cornering and descending
Hold onto the drops to lower your centre of gravity (remembering to feather the brakes), straighten and push down on your outside leg, whilst bending your inside knee and pushing down on your inside hand. This will maximise the centrifugal force in the corner, helping you to stay upright whilst maximising speed.
Learn to ride in a slightly lower gear than perhaps feels natural, which will require a faster cadence (rate of pedaling). Riding in an easier gear requires less power, so you burn through your glycogen stores slower and instead use more fat to fuel your ride. This will leave you with those glycogen stores for the times in the race when you really need them.
4. Power and pedal stroke
The number one rule is don’t overthink it. Just make sure your saddle height is right and focus on the factors above. In those critical moments of the race when you need a bit of extra power, focus on ‘larger’ pedal strokes whilst squeezing your glutes and using your core. When coming out of the saddle, make sure your leg is still pumping in a straight line down through the pedal like a piston.
5. Nutrition and hydration
Always take more than you think you need. And if you want that extra umph, down some concentrated beetroot juice. The nitrates in beet juice convert to nitric oxide, which promotes vasodilation – widening of your blood vessels – and lowered blood pressure. One landmark study found that cyclists drinking high doses of concentrated beetroot juice used about 3 percent less oxygen during exercise tests than those drinking a placebo drink. In other words, the riders used less energy to pedal the same pace.