Of the three ways to improve cycling performance identified by Joe Friel, cycling economy is perhaps the most important. This is especially true for age group athletes who may have seen their best VO2 max and lactate threshold days behind them.
Unfortunately, sports science understands less about economy than it does about VO2 max and lactate threshold. Physiologically, cycling efficiency is really a function of how effectively a cyclist uses oxygen while on the bike. The longer the race, the more important cycling economy becomes. The most important thing is not to waste energy. We see this concept in full force in the professional peloton where general classification riders like Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck sit behind their teammates who block the wind and help their team captain conserve energy until the last big climb of the day. But what if your races entail individual long individual efforts where drafting is not allowed?
When it comes to cycling economy, there some things you can control and others that are outside your control. Biological factors such as muscle type (fast twitch vs. slow twitch), mitochondrial density, shoulder widths, and arm and leg length are God-given characteristics over which a cyclist has little control.
So, let’s focus on the things over which we do have control.
- Sport specific skills: Sport specific skills, or cycling specific skills, refer to the cyclists’ ability to handle the bike, pedal efficiently and draft if riding in a large group of riders. These skills or talents often takes years to develop and are largely a matter of practice and repetition.
- Power: Strength and power to apply more force to the pedal can be enhanced through effective training, including lactate threshold intervals and plyometrics.
- Body Weight: Body weight is important factor for cyclists, especially when going up hill. Each kilogram of body weight (2.2 lbs) requires 3 watts of energy to move up a 6% incline. Cyclists seeking to improve cycling performance can gain “free speed” simply by shedding excess body fat. Losing 5 kilograms of body weight is the functional equivalent of gaining 15 watts of power when going up hill.
- Aerodynamics: Aerodynamics is absolutely critical to going faster on the bike. Aerodynamics can be improved by improving body position and by investing in more aerodynamic equipment such as specially designed aerobars, wheels, helmets and bike frames.
Each of items – while controllable – are difficult to achieve. They take time, effort, practice, discipline and money. However, by focusing on improving these trainable skills, an aspiring athlete will improve cycling performance through efficient use of energy and technology.