by John Howard
This may sound familiar, but don't take it personally, I'm just playing a little devil's advocate game with statistics. Athletically, you're probably a better runner than cyclist. In fact, you probably have never really taken cycling seriously. The bike you're riding probably came from a large discount store and was fine-tuned with a pair of vice grips. Right from the beginning, the thing never really fit right or felt fast. Something always hurts, and other cyclists blow by you on rides. When you left it out one night, it started squeaking and now the rear tire is flat and you're too embarrassed to take it to a real bike shop.
OK, you have to walk before you run, so let's start with the basics, 10 simple tips that will help you prioritize the needs of your newly-adopted sport. By the way, the scariest stats of all concern cycling traffic accidents, so it's our goal here to not only to make you fit from cycling, but to also make the bike fit you. In the process, we want to also make you powerful and safe. As for enjoying yourself, it's going to be a snap!
- Set the bike up properly.
Whatever you paid for your bike, correct fit is the key to that little "power, comfort and safety" trilogy I mentioned earlier. At our School of Champions camps and clinics, we find fewer than 10% of our students are correctly fitted for optimal efficiency. Most cycling injuries to the knees and back could be avoided if bike positioning had been a priority in the beginning.
- Save your money.
Don't let expensive equipment prices scare you away. Early in my cycling career, I rode a lot of stage races in Central America. I found cyclists riding equipment most of us would politely classify as antiquated. Still, those bikes didn't prevent their riders from consistently turning in superior performances. There is a lesson here. Inexpensive, yet correctly fitting bikes can be upgraded to compete with machines costing thousands more with judicious use of funds.
What is important is maintenance. Don't be afraid to take your ugly duckling in for service - and listen to the mechanic when he tells you something needs to be replaced. Believe me, he has your security in mind.
- Prioritize your purchases.
A quality helmet should head the list. Once at the World Mountain Bike Championships, I was on a routine course exploration mission and made a minor mistake which quickly compounded into a series of mistakes resulting in a head-first, over-the-bars crash. My new Bell helmet took the full impact and left me to fight again another day.
As for your bike, upgrades of wheels and tires are the most cost-effective. Forget aero bars until you have mastered basic riding skills. Many training and racing accidents occur when beginners simply lose control while riding in the aero position.
If you take your riding seriously, cycling shoes are a must for avoiding joint problems. A stiff shoe will also help you generate more muscular force through the pedals. When your mileage starts to climb, cycling shorts will add both comfort and a measure of protection against the elements.
- Who's racing?
Judge your progress by your own standards. As you start your training, remember we all progress at different levels. Concentrate on developing a firm mileage base and consistently record your mileage in a training log. The log will encourage you to ride daily in order to log the distance. Next thing you know, you will be in competition with yourself. Take it easy, though. Stopping to smell the flowers once in awhile allows you to appreciate the therapeutic joys of pedaling.
- Train with moderation.
Some of the most talented racers I know never even make it into the senior ranks of the sport. Most beginners attack the roads like a bull in a china shop and burn out or suffer a crash and quit. While biking appears to be easy low-stress stuff, too many fast miles without a solid base or correct fit can lead to injury or burnout. Take the time to savor each subtle improvement in your personal form.
In other words, enjoy the quality of your training. Always stop short of exhaustion. In fact, start out by taking the bike to the biggest, emptiest parking lot you can find on an early morning weekend and just practice handling skills. Try diving into right and left banking turns and then see how quickly you can get to your brakes. If it's been awhile since you rode seriously, practice your handling skills before you ever get on the street. You will have greater confidence in your own ability to handle situations as they arise, and be able to enjoy your ride more.
- Stair-step your training.
Begin by establishing a solid long distance base using low gears and lots of rpms. If this is your first year of riding, base can be defined as 3-5,000 miles. Base evolves into continuous pedaling or "tempo" training with bigger gears. Tempo lays the groundwork for intervals, with emphasis on speed and stamina. Don't forget to take a day off, and not just because it's Monday. Rest is essential to growth. As you climb the steps toward fitness, make them wide, and walk slowly.
- Stay hydrated.
Most of us are aware of the importance of training our muscles for cycling. Few cyclists, however, give much thought to training the stomach and intestines to accept fluid replacement while racing, training or touring briskly.
Why is this so important? Dehydration can undermine your performance. A loss of 6% of your body weight can lead to 20-30% decrease in performance.
Thirst is not a good indicator of need. A comprehensive sports drink that actually replaces all 72 known minerals in the body while boosting blood sugar will keep you operating at a high level of efficiency even if your conditioning may be lacking. For every pound of fluid lost during your workout or race, you need to replace one pint or 16 ounces of fluid.
Try to find cold drinks - they absorb more quickly. When you drink during your ride, practice drinking larger amounts at once. Research has shown that a good electrolyte replacement drink will speed the absorption across the walls of the small intestine. In short, proper fluid replacement is vital to effective cycling.
- Train with others.
The best way to improve your strength and endurance is to train with other riders. Pick a cycling club or a group of supportive recreational cyclists who are equally or even slightly stronger than yourself. Ideally, your training partners will take you to a higher level. Avoid hardcore purists who don't communicate and take joy in dropping beginners.
- Watch other cyclists.
Notice the efficient, smooth style of experienced riders, then contrast them with the energy-wasting awkward form of entry-level bikers. Learn to identify "rights" and "wrongs." Compare and contrast your own profile in passing shop windows or on a video. Positive reinforcement also helps. Read cycling magazines, then visualize yourself in the pages.
- Go to bike school.
In a good training camp or clinic, you will learn the ABCs of positioning. You will grasp the laws of survival in traffic. You will hear lectures on riding techniques such as climbing, cornering, braking, shifting and pack skills like pace line and echelon. Additionally, you will pick up the key points of building a training program, fluid replacement and diet. You will have the opportunity to demonstrate what you learned and be critiqued by a professional coach who is dedicated to seeing you improve.