At this time of year a lot of racing cyclists simply attach their bikes to a turbo trainer and keep their forays out on the open road to a bare minimum. But this is a big mistake, because restricting your training to indoors means you’re missing a great opportunity to prepare for the next season.
At the very least you should be out on the road getting in some of those all-important base miles. However, it’s also during the winter that many athletes hit the roads and practise the skills that they tend to neglect in the thick of the racing season. You should be doing the same, so here are a few things that, if you brush up on now, will give you the edge come spring.
The large number of riders who can’t ride their bikes with their hands off the bars is astonishing, because it’s a surprisingly important skill. Hands-free riding is especially useful in a road race or long training ride, where you need to take gilets or jackets on and off or try to unwrap energy bars as you ride. If you’re uneasy about riding no hands, it’s best to start by taking just one hand off the bars and then slowly removing the other hand for a few seconds at a time, and then for a bit longer, until you can control the steering of the bike without hands.
Once you’ve mastered this, you can start reaching into your back pockets for a short time.
Practice is key here, and you should aim to steadily progress until you can eventually take a jacket off and put it back on again without fear of falling. It’s simply about having con?dence in yourself, so doing it in stages is important to build that up. If you’ve got someone you ride with who’s worried about riding with their hands off the bars, go gently. Just show them how you do it, how easy and con?dent you are with it, and they’ll follow your lead. It’s amazing how quickly their con?dence grows and they’re able to do things on a bike that they always thought impossible.
One skill that’s important to get right is bunny hopping, and no, it isn’t just for mountain bikers. You don’t want to go down that huge pothole or hit that half brick on your brand new, deep-section, £1500 carbon rims do you? Bunny hopping is the best way to avoid an obstacle that you’ve seen late, and it’s actually a fairly simple technique to learn. All you have to do is grip the bars hard and, as you approach the obstacle, pull up on them at the same time as you lift the back of the bike by using your legs to pull up your pedals. Then it’s a case of ‘jumping’ the back end of the bike in sync with the front end. It sounds difficult, but with a little practice it’s an easy technique to learn.
Very few races or training rides take place on completely straight roads, yet many riders don’t bother to work on their cornering technique.
I remember the first time I went go-karting at an indoor track and I was getting my ‘lines’ wrong on every corner. The engines in karts are very small, so as soon as I lost momentum it took ages to get it back up to speed, and it’s exactly the same with your legs and your bike.
I followed an expert karter who was lapping much faster than anyone else for a few laps and realised that he was taking very wide lines on every corner. In fact he was entering the corners much wider than I ever would have thought of doing, but was keeping his momentum and losing hardly any speed around the bends.
I started taking the same lines as the expert and before I knew it, I’d done the second-fastest lap ever around the circuit by the end of the session. Unfortunately, nobody from McLaren spotted me, but I took what I learnt and applied it to fast cornering on a road bike. The same principle applies: if you approach a corner too tightly, you’ll have to brake very hard to get round, lose all of your momentum and you then have to sprint like mad to recatch the wheel you’ve just lost.
Instead, stay out wide as you approach a corner and you won’t have to brake as hard to hit the apex. If you stay off the brakes, lower your centre of gravity by crouching down on the bike, spot the apex early and exit wide out of the bend, you’ll lose very little speed and still be on the wheel in front. However, do take care on open roads and don’t cross the white line.
No doubt you spend hours on your climbing with hill repeats, power climbs and brow sprints. That’s all well and good, because it can help you take plenty of time out of your rivals on the up. It’s pretty useless, though, if you then lose all of that time by descending with your brakes on. Sure, flying downhill can be scary, but you’ll lose out if you’re being ultra-cautious, slowing for every corner and spending the whole time worrying about what might happen. Luckily, like good cornering, good descending technique can be learned, and the idea of a born descender is nonsense.
When descending, much the same applies as to your cornering technique, but you have to concentrate more because it’s more dangerous. Some riders freeze on downhills and, instead of concentrating on good lines and keeping the speed through the bends, they’ll just worry about crashing. Focus completely on the lines you’re taking and stay fully alert to every corner you approach. Enter nice and wide – again with care if it’s on an open road – then clip the apex really close, lower your centre of gravity, stay off the brakes and exit turns as wide as you possibly can.
A great idea is to watch clips of Tour de France riders descending and picture yourself following suit. I love practising this on my Spanish training camps as the descents are longer, with wonderfully graded roads. In this country, though, you’ll probably come across much steeper and bumpier descents. Get your centre of gravity over your back wheel to stop it bouncing and keep control of the bike. Clear your head of ‘what ifs’ and focus on getting down that hill as fast as possible.
Through-and-off, or echelon riding
Through-and-off is taking your turn at the front, then peeling off to let someone else lead. It’s easier to practise on open roads, as riding in an echelon is normally only done on a closed circuit where you can use the whole road. When you’re practising with a group of riders, you have to be aware of which way the wind is blowing and change on the sheltered side of the group. When you’re on the front and the wind is blowing from the right, make sure you leave enough room for the other riders to tuck in on the right. If the wind is coming from the left, stay over to the left so the riders can fan out on your right.
Always think smooth when going through-and-off, and never commit the cardinal sin of jumping away from the group when it’s your turn to lead. If you want to lift the speed, ride to the front and then lift the pace gently so you don’t have riders fighting for wheels behind you, or missing wheels completely.
You should be constantly thinking about the other riders in the group. When you’ve finished your turn on the front of the echelon, just flick an elbow at the rider behind to indicate that your stint is over. Stay really close to each other, but not directly on the wheel; you may need some breathing space if the rider on the front gets out of the saddle and slows or jerks momentarily.
If you’re the rider in front and feel the need to get out of the saddle, ease out of it smoothly and take care not to pull the bike backwards. Again, be safe, smooth and think about the others in the group – the last thing you want to do is cause a pile-up!