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The Complete Cyclist 1: Essential Ingredients
Watching the Tour this past week, I realize there are many elements that go into being successful in cycling. But the nature and number of these elements can make training an inexact science that sometimes seems more like an art. Let’s simplify this rather complex science into usable information that can be applied to your training strategy…

In this first article, we will identify the key elements essential to succeed in bike racing. These are referred to as the “Essential Ingredients.” In upcoming articles we will help you identify your weaknesses or “Limiters,” so that you can focus your training on specific areas which will make you a more complete bike racer and better your chances of winning.

Aerobic Capacity – First and foremost, cycling is an aerobic sport. Oxygen (O2) is used by the body to produce energy. The better your ability to utilize O2, the more potential you have for success. Exercise physiologists, sport doctors, and coaches use the Max VO2 test to determine an athlete’s aerobic capacity; this test measures the body’s ability to utilize O2. Remember, there is plenty of O2 available; the issue is how much O2 you can utilize when the body is under severe stress (e.g., racing). It’s a good thing if you have a bigger engine than most and not the end of the world if you don’t. Remember, it is only one of many essential ingredients.

Strength – The word strength is used a lot to describe good riders. “He is a strong rider!”, “Man that dude is strong!” I’ve always wondered exactly what that meant. I look at a pro rider like Chris Horner (Predictor-Lotto) or Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank), and I would not view them and say they are “strong.” So what is strength in bike racing? By definition, strength is the ability to overcome resistance. Resistance on a bike is the ability to overcome things like gravity (climbing) and wind. Don’t confuse strength with power, as a lot of times they are used interchangeably. Power is defined as “force times velocity”, where strength (force) is one component of that power. The ultimate question (which lends support to the inexact science argument) is; how much strength is really necessary in order to be a better bike racer? Obviously, going into the gym and lifting a lot of weights is not the answer. If it were, body builders would be great cyclists. They aren’t. They are great body builders. There is a ton of debate as to where to get this strength; in the gym or on the bike. For now, I will leave that for another article and for you and your coach to decide.

Economy – This is a very interesting and underrated component of success. In the lab, we measure how efficiently an athlete utilizes O2 to produce a given amount of work. Top pros will require ~1.2 liters of O2 to produce 100 watts (~80 watts per liter of O2.). Untrained individuals will require ~1.7 liters to produce the same 100 watts (~60 watts per liter of O2.). Although economy testing is not easily available to most athletes on a regular basis, it is still something that can be worked on and improved through training. A good example is a runner who becomes a cyclist. They may have a great aerobic engine from years of distance running, but not an “economical” one in cycling terms. Training and developing good technique (pedal stroke) over time will help improve economy.

Anaerobic Energy System – This essential element is what we associate with bike racing ability. There are a lot of terms included in this ingredient, including VO2 intervals, lactic or anaerobic power, a-lactic power, and lactic tolerance. To keep things simple, it’s your body dipping into your carbohydrate stores (without the use of O2) to produce needed energy because your body can’t produce the energy needed through the aerobic pathway. We’ve all been there too many times. The pace increases to the point when your HR is near maximal effort, legs and lungs are screaming in agony and you wonder who the heck is pushing the pace up at the front. The problem with the anaerobic method of meeting energy demands is that once you enter it, it’s pretty much the beginning of the end. An important note to remember is going into “anaerobic” is not like we turn off the aerobic energy system. You are still breathing and utilizing O2. It’s just you need more energy and are getting it from this other system. Therefore, the more efficient your aerobic capacity, the longer it takes and the higher the pace before you need to rely heavily on the anaerobic system.

Others – Now let’s list some of the other essential ingredients that can easily be overlooked but are just as important. It’s easy to ignore a lot of these because some of them are outside the scope of cycling. But they all play a role in being a complete athlete:

1. Nutrition – View nutrition as a tool of the trade, just like your components or wheels. It is critically important and should be given a lot of attention in your training program. When I work with athletes through either coaching or at our camps, the #1 most requested topic of additional information is how they can improve both their on and off bike nutritional program to achieve optimal results. Having a good nutrition program is like a fine tuned car that fires on all cylinders by running on premium gas rather than low-grade fuel.

2. Flexibility – We write about it many times, good flexibility on the bike is vital to proper bike fit, recovery, injury (a lot of studies go both ways on this one) and allowing muscle groups to function properly. We can classify muscles into two groups – postural and phasic. A postural muscle’s prime job is to support our structure, while the phasic groups are to generate conscious movement. If a postural muscle that supports a phasic muscle is tight, then that phasic muscle will be weak or inhibited. For example if the psoas (hip flexor) is tight, the gluteus maximus, which is a prime muscle for generating power on the bike, will be weakened. A good stretching program regularly followed can enhance your performance on the bike.

3. Bike Fit – A proper bike fit helps optimize power, economy, and aerodynamics. A proper bike fit will have a direct effect on injury prevention and allows you to get the most out of your fitness, using less energy to overcome the forces of gravity and wind.

4. Psychology – This topic just doesn’t get the attention it deserves. We are fortunate at Pez to have Marvin Zauderer writing articles on this very important ingredient. How many times have you seen an athlete with what seems unlimited physical talent, but just can’t put it all together to meet that potential? An athlete with confidence, perspective on the sport and in life is on track to be a true winner.

5. Tactics – You could write books on the subject of tactics. Tactics are the glue that holds it all together. It’s the combination of a very good athlete and superb tactics that win bike races. It’s probably one of the least talked about subjects because it’s difficult to set up a forum for discussing them. Bike racing is different from other group sports where you can sit around in a room and review films. Tactics are a lot of trial and error, good communication amongst team mates and an athlete that is always thinking during the race about how they can put themselves into position to win the bike race.

It’s important to understand that all these ingredients need to be addressed as part of an athlete’s training program. It’s not one specific thing that makes an athlete great, its many things. There is no one essential ingredient that is more important than another. The one that is most important is the one that is preventing you from accomplishing your goals. Knowing what is needed to succeed is the first step, identifying your limiters is the next step which we will address in the next article.

Ride safe! Ride strong!

About Bruce
Bruce Hendler created AthletiCamps to provide cycling specific coaching and training to athletes and cyclists of all levels. Find out more at


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