Riding Like the Clappers

Having a Go

There are far too many riders who are scared to death of entering events and competing which is a real shame. More than any other sport I've come across, cyclists really are very friendly people and the truth is that a lot aren't exactly elite athletes. It's all about having a go and, especially in the case of time trials, it's all about racing against yourself, not against anybody else. UEA CC unashamedly concentrates on time trials, mainly because they offer the most accessible form of competitive cycling for the average poverty-stricken and car-less student. Road racing events are few and far between and, to be honest, unless you are an extremely capable rider you won't last more than five minutes. Time triallists generally aren't concerned about beating each other, many merely seek the personal satisfaction of riding 10 miles faster than ever before. Consequently, there are no huge egos to cope with, it's all very laid back. I wish I had photos of riders' faces who have beaten their personal bests, it says it all. You get some 70 year old bloke who gets round a '10' in under half an hour for the first time ever and he's over the moon, despite the fact that the bloke who was fastest on the day went round 10 minutes quicker. It's all very personal. A new face on the scene is quickly made to feel very welcome, whether or not you're the new Chris Boardman.

The club turns up several times a week to various local club events, usually over 10 miles. These are really more like a social gathering, with everyone gossiping about some new gadget or another. You simply turn up with your bike, sign on, pay about 30 pence entry fee and that's it. Very occasionally, you get a bit of a superstar turn up and you can often learn more in just five minutes conversation with them than you could from several text books.

In time trials, you don't ride with other riders, you simply ride alone as fast as you can over a pre-determined course. Riders usually start at one minute intervals and are held upright on the bike at the start line by a marshal. You receive a countdown from 5 and then it's "Go!". The starter gives you a hefty push and then it's just you against the stopwatch!

Once you have a few of these low key club events under your belt, you may fancy taking a step up and entering so called 'Open' events which generally take place on the faster 'A' roads and have much larger fields - anything up to 120 riders from all over the country. These events have to be entered two weeks in advance by post and are a little more formal, but the crowd of riders and marshals along the course make you feel like a proper bike racer and the atmosphere is typically friendly. Numerous cash prizes are up for grabs for things such as best improvement, fastest novice, best handicap time; as a beginner, it's quite easy to earn yourself a few quid every week if you play your cards right. Don't feel daunted - even first time out you will probably finish comfortably about midway down the field. There are very few good riders and a lot of awful ones!

Events are held over 4 main distances 10, 25, 50, and 100 (?!) miles although the shorter distances are naturally more popular with the riders!! If you are sufficiently inclined to do so, you can quite easily do 3 short time trials a week and never have to go more than 10 miles from Norwich to get to them. Cycling is big in East Anglia, why not make the most of it?

What you need

Not as much as you might think. The first few rides you do will accustom you as to how to pace yourself and it will take 3 or 4 rides before you get the hang of it so there's no need to have a flash bike or anything. Once you've got the hang of it, you may start thinking about tweaking the bike a bit to make it go a bit faster.

At 25 mph, 85% of your energy is lost to aerodynamic drag, at 30mph this is close to 95%. All the hi-tech gadgetry in the world doesn't make up for not being very fit, but, having said that, a good body position will save you more time than all the most expensive aero gadgets put together. Quite fortunate that actually, as body position is one of the cheapest things to correct. Tribars are standard time trialling equipment these days and the club has a few sets available for use, although these take some getting used to, so be careful (everybody crashes the first time they use them, it's one of those rites-of-passage things!). Set them so that your hands are slightly apart and your forearms parallel to the ground. Drop the handlebar stem and get as low as you can without hunching your back. The optimum position is to be slightly upside down if anything but unless you have a modified stem like mine this is difficult. Shove your saddle as far forward as it will go to get yourself right over the bottom bracket. Feel like Grahame Obree yet? You have probably just gained an extra 1 or 2 mph without even trying.

If you are intent on having some other aero gadgetry, the best investment is possibly replacing your front spokes with bladed ones, aero rims actually make little difference except at very high speed. The club has several 'Unidisc' covers which convert your rear wheel into a streamlined disc. A skinsuit is a top investment too, seeing as your body creates 60% of the total drag you and the bike suffer. Club skinsuits are available for around 30 quid. Good 18mm tyres capable of safely handling around 120 psi are important. Continental Super Sport 18mm are a good budget buy for around a tenner each. Once you start to become a serious rocketman, the club is able to supply pointy aero helmets for less than a tenner. Anything else 'go faster' probably isn't worth the money - buy a turbo and a years supply of Maxim instead! If you want any equipment, we are well connected with a few local shops and can get good deals.

Other Little Tricks

'Ride on your toes' - have your shoe plates / straps set as far forward on your foot as possible. Again, you're spreading the muscular load more onto your calves. This also promotes a good upwards stroke.

A good pedalling technique is important. As described in the previous instalment, a good way to train yourself to achieve this is, when spinning well, to try to lift your knees as high as you can, but don't jerk obviously. A turbo is good for practising this. Look at pictures of top testers in action, they all show a really pronounced foot extension as they pull the pedal up behind them.

Wobbling from side to side as you pedal or 'doing the funky chicken' wastes stacks of energy that you should be channelling into your legs. Practice on the turbo in front of a mirror. If you can't do this, set up a lamp behind you so that you cast a shadow on the wall in front. Aim to keep as still as you can, it really pays off.

You often don't need to breathe half as hard as you find yourself doing. Try it, breathe slower and deeper instead of fast and shallow. Do this with a heart monitor and you'll find you suddenly have saved about 5 beats/min. Most people breathe in time with their pedalling, sort of 'In-in-out-out' or even 'in-out-in-out' (which makes me very dizzy!) but I tend to do 'in-in-in-out-out-out' most of the time. I'd always reckoned this was the case but I read a sport science journal recently where it was shown that rapid breathing yields greater lactic acid concentrations at a given intensity than slower, deeper breathing. Don't forget, your intercostal muscles and diaphragm are burning energy too, so this makes sense.

There's little to be gained by doing things such as 'burying yourself into the wind and having a rest on the way home' unless you know a course extremely well. Even going up hills, ride within yourself. Wrecking yourself early on and then hanging on for grim death for the last few miles loses you no end of time. Maintain an even pace all the way round. Once you've done a few TT's, you can start playing the brinkmanship game - it's a fine line between going too steadily or overcooking it and blowing up horribly. Again, experience has taught me that you will always get to the finish quicker if you have a conservative ride than if you wreck yourself too soon. So, start off steadily and experiment with going harder on subsequent rides.

Never underestimate the effects of crosswinds, even slight hills and the nature of the road surface, they make the difference between a fast course and a much slower one. If you are really grovelling into a strong wind, so is everybody else. If it's knocking 5 mph off your average, it's knocking the same off everyone else. What I'm trying to say is don't panic and just ride within yourself!

Warm-up! Your aerobic system takes a good 15-20 mins to turn on fully (scientific fact). So, have a good warm-up! Don't warm-up anywhere near race intensity or you'll start half knackered. The best warm-up is spinning well on a small gear. Also, it 's not gimmicky or trendy, it really does work wonders - warm-up balm on the legs half an hour before you set off. Thing is, unless you shave your legs, you need tons of the stuff and it costs a fortune. If you're a 'shaven raver' though, a little dollop does most of your legs. (For God's sake make sure you wash it off your hands before you have a slash though...:-) Borwells do some good stuff for about 6 quid.

Most recent discovery this one, it concerns wheels. Take your wheels out and give them a good spin in your hand. Feel wobbly / off balance? Even my aero wheels were miles out of balance when I checked them. This wastes a lot of energy - if you've ever watched an overloaded washing machine trying to spin, you'll know what I mean. If you stop the wheel, the heavy side will generally rotate until it is at the bottom. I don't know how you'd do it with tubs, but with clinchers the best cure is to put small strips of old inner tube between the rim tape and inner tube on the light side as ballast. Takes a lot of patience but the bike suddenly feels much nicer when the wheels are balanced properly.

Race Preparation

Done correctly, this will make you go a helluva lot quicker on race day Than you can normally could. You really need a fair bit of faith for this as at first it seems like a strange way of going about things but in time you come to realise that it works.

The most important thing is to decide when to switch from a winter 'training' programme to your summer 'racing' programme and then stick to it. Roughly speaking, you will start to 'peak' about 3 months after you switch over to your race training schedule. So, if you are aiming to do well in, say, the BUSA time trials, you should be thinking about getting going in about late February. Everything I've told you before about basic training is about to be turned on it's head, so I'll apologise in advance.

Firstly, you can only peak once a year and it therefore follows that in order to peak, you must first 'trough'. Peaking only involves the 'fast' part or top end of your power output, that is the glycolysis part, particularly the anaerobic side of things. As described earlier, high intensity exercise smashes up your body quite considerably and, after a few months the repairs needed start to impair performance quite markedly. So, there are only a few months of serious training available to achieve top fitness before the inevitable dip in performance occurs. After this, it is necessary to rest your body in order for it to repair itself and recover. As damage is only done during the high intensity stuff, to 'rest' you simply don't tax your glycolysis system for a few months. This is generally done over the winter where big, steady Level 1 and Level 2 rides are done to stiffen basic aerobic fitness. Then, as the racing season begins, it is a question of training the top end of your energy system to slowly bring up your flat-out speed. This is what is often refered to as 'form' - the state of ones form indicates the level to which ones aerobic system is functioning. Riders begin the season with pretty 'flat' form but with racing and specific training, form slowly increases to a maximum for several weeks before 'going off the boil' and then, no matter how hard you train, you cannot acheive the same level of performance. Too much racing and training too soon and all form will quickly be spent so it is important to build up slowly. Conversely, by easing off on the amount of training you do, you can hold your form for much longer.

Alongside this annual control of form, it is also possible to control form on a weekly basis - you can actually bring it up for weekends when most racing is done. Personally, I find the sports science involved in cycling as fascinating and interesting as the racing itself.

Winter and Summer Programmes

Winter riding is primarily aimed at building base fitness and endurance, if you don't stay off the big intensity stuff you will never manage to ride well in the summer. So, in general long steady rides at Level 1 or no more than 90 mins Level 2 a days hould be undertaken. Have a couple of days of a week off or just go out every other day. Training hard in the early part of the winter is fine, but try to have at least between November and February taking it really easy. Don't worry, once you have got yourself fit, it never disappears, it just remains dormant for a while. I do a maximum of 9 hours a week at High Level 1 in the winter, that's all. Even that is perhaps too much.

When you reach the date at which you want to switch over to your summer programme, do it with conviction and stick to it. My summer programme is borrowed from Grahame Obree and is basically a 'one plus four' regime and is excellent for the shorter time trials. The idea is to have several short Level 4 sessions, usually in the form of time trials followed by nothing more than steady Level 1 rides in between. However, early in the season, races are hard to come by so are substituted for by smashing yourself up on the turbo. A typical week for me looks something like this:

  Mon      Day off
  Tues     90 mins Level 1
  Wed      90 mins Level 1.  20 min Level 4 smash up p.m.
  Thurs    2-3 hours Recovery ride
  Fri      Day off
  Sat      60 min Level 4 smash up
  Sun      Club ride (Recovery)

Once the season gets going, a '10' mid week takes the place of the turbo session and a big time trial, perhaps a '25' takes the place of the weekend turbo session. If you are really targeting an event, you need to be thinking two weeks in advance really. 14-7 days before, have a really hard week. Do loads of High Level 1 or even Level 2 and several hard turbo sessions. Obviously don't completely wreck yourself but by the end of the week you should be feeling quite tired. Then, the week before the event, you should be recuperating, only doing very steady rides but it is important to still get a '10' or a 20 min Level 4 session mid-week to sharpen your speed. There is no point in training hard in this week, all the hard training is in your legs already, now you are just letting your body rest and adapt.

You may think that all this enforced idleness is losing you some form but this really isn't the case. I once measured my threshold power output before a 100 mile time trial and then did the same again a week afterwards with absolutely no riding in between. Even with a week off the bike, my threshold power was much higher after smashing myself up in the 100, in fact my form the following weekend was fantastic. Some riders in the Tour of Britain underwent similar testing prior to the start of the race a few years ago. Once again, even after two weeks of recovery rides, they were still a hell of a lot fitter than when they started. This is the trick that nearly all club riders miss. Come race day, it is important to be both well trained AND well rested. Zoom!!

Whether following a weekly or fortnightly preparation programme, the important thing is to avoid big intensity training within three days of the event. As explained above, it is far more beneficial to rest and let your body adapt to the training, so th at everything will be fully tweaked and raring to go on race day. Look upon mid-week club time trials as training rides; after all, that is primarily their purpose. It is generally accepted that it is important to taper intensity down towards your target event. Always aim to be lowering the intensity day by day as the event approaches, don't suddenly bring it up again. Do the Level 4, then Level 1, then recovery, then a day off. Don't do Level 4, day off, recovery ride and Level 1 for example. It is important to keep bringing it down, otherwise your peak will unleash itself on any day when the intensity is higher than the day before. Sometimes on my recovery rides before events (what I call Primer Rides), I have a real job on my hands because I fee l as strong as an ox and just want to explode. Don't! Save it for the event.

The day before the event, absolutely stuff yourself with as much low-fat starchy food as humanly possible to fully charge up your glycogen supplies; in fact make a point of a high carbohydrate diet as much as you can anyway. Avoid booze the night before too; even a slight hangover can reduce your aerobic power by about 7 per cent.

Apart from the odd hard week in order to peak, there is nothing to be gained by continually training hard whilst racing; a couple of races a week is the best training you can get. Just take it easy.

It is possible to keep an accurate track of your form by taking your pulse in the morning before you climb out of bed. Keep a record or, even better, keep track of it through the year by plotting it on graph paper. Your lowest resting pulse throughout the year indicates your top form. If it is, say, 15 weeks from starting your summer programme to maximum form, then you can use this information the following year to plan your training. My pulse is generally in the high 50's during the depths of winter but comes down to around 42 beat/min when I'm really going like a rocket. Any inexplicable rises in resting pulse are usually caused by viral infections or by slightly over-doing the training. The treatment for both cases is the same, pack in the Level 4 until your resting pulse comes back down again. Restart the Level 4 too soon and you will merely prolong your illness.

As I said earlier, some of this may seem very counter-intuitive, but it works very effectively. The majority of riders you will meet have no inkling of any of these techniques and consequently handicap themselves considerably. There is a lot of customisation to be had in your training, you may find, as a few riders do, that you go better the day immediately after a '10'. Alternatively, your weekly peak may occur 2-3 days after your last Level 4 session. This is why it is important to keep a record of what you do so that, when you do find the winning formula, you can reproduce it. Play it by ear and experiment, we're all different after all.

Secret Recipe

Diet - another important factor. It is common sense that, as an athlete, you will be burning far more calories than a sedentary person so, naturally, you need to eat more calories, preferably in the form of starchy foods such as pasta, rice, potatoes etc. To be honest, there's no need to live like a monk, eat what you want and as much as you want but bear in mind that free sugar, salt and fat aren't good for you anyway. This is particularly important for your pre-race meal.

My 'lucky' pre - race breakfast is never eaten less than 3 hours before the event, otherwise, come the start of the race, part of your metabolism is being wasted on processing the food when it should be spinning your legs around. I usually have half a dozen buckwheat pancakes (yummy) with a little Maxim sprinkled on top. This yields over 1000 calories on a good day, the recommended minimum pre-race intake being 600 calories. This wee meal has very little salt, sugar and fat in it and is surprisingly edible at 5 o'clock in the morning. If you have tea or coffee, take it without sugar to avoid the dreaded 'hypoglycaemic rebound' described earlier. It's perfectly okay to keep yourself topped up on Maxim anything up to 15 mins before the start but be careful of bloating your stomach too much.

In races of 25 miles and less, it's not important to take a drink around with you as glycolysis liberates anything up to a litre of water per hour, which is about as long as your glycogen will last. In bigger events such a 50's and 100's, two scoops of Maxim per bottle and a bottle per hour is more than enough. But don't wait until you feel thirsty to drink - aim to have, say, 3 or 4 gulps every 20 minutes whether or not you feel thirsty.

An advanced method exists whereby muscular glycogen stores can be temporarily boosted to around 150% of their normal maximum, with obvious benefits to flat-out endurance and speed. Much like peaking, it involves a careful programme of eating in the build up to an event. 'Glycogen Supercompensation' involves completely exhausting muscular glycogen supplies the week before an event. If you are racing every weekend, this fits in nicely as a hard weekend of racing will leave supplies at rock bottom. Then in the next few days, rather than gorging yourself on high carbohydrate food, keep the carbohydrate out of your diet as much as possible to prevent your body reloading its glycogen reservoir. Continue training as normal. Then, 2-3 days before the event, go completely carbohydrate mad, eat and eat until you can't eat any more. What your body now does is 'supercompensate', it has 'learned' that carbohydrate may not be as freely available in the future so makes the most of it while it can and absolutely saturates your muscles and liver with glycogen, just in case. The result is that you turn up at your chosen event, perhaps a 50 or 100 mile time trial, with your body bristling with glycogen. It works, I always do it for the bigger time trials and the effect is pretty astonishing, although, obviously, there's not a lot to be gained by doing it for rides of less than an hour when your normal glycogen supplies will see you through easily.

Look after the pennies...

Each of the above dodgies by themselves makes only a very limited difference to performance. But, rather like compound interest, only when those tiny differences are combined does a huge increase in overall performance occur. As I have said a few times, the effects can be pretty astonishing but equally importantly, it's just as satisfying to be in control of your body for a change. Tuning into yourself is very rewarding and you get to know yourself extremely well, which is just as well considering most of us have got another 50 years or so attached to our bodies. You almost develop a mental instrument panel and by reading the various physiological 'gauges', you can tell an awful lot about your state of health.

Anyway, that's it. If you hadn't already guessed, I'm rather a keen cyclist and absolutely love spending hours on end talking about it, so feel free to get in touch. I'll happily talk your ears off, especially after a few pints of scrumpy. What the Hell, I'm not THAT dedicated, you know!.

Andy Tyler


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About the author

My name is John Swindells and I'm a keen recreational cyclist with a preference for long one-day rides. I've also previously dabbled in time trialling and cyclo-cross. See more of what I get up to on Strava!