By John Howard and Gina Poertner, CHES
It’s probably cold right now and you are on your trainer or rollers. I’m also assuming that you are now on your way to the gym to begin some form of strength/stability training, so why not consider the following offer: let’s go another mile per, with a lower heart rate under ideal circumstances. What’s the catch? Simple, all you have to do is learn to pray.
Like religion, cycling should enhance and enrich your life and what could be a clearer path to enhancement than more speed? This spiritual boost has everything to do with the way you perch yourself on your bike. This month I’m going to provide a righteous measure of increased performance for the enlightened few who will heed the message, and practice to reinforce the technique. Keep that thought and it will motivate you through the long lull of winter.
The author’s classic Praying Mantis position, praying that he won’t get caught.
Going Aero With Phantom Bars
As you know, air is the single biggest speed deterrent, so we need to learn what it takes to make us more slippery. While barreling into headwinds and light crosswind conditions, the best position is the classic Praying Mantis. If you think that finding that position is only accomplished with aero bars, keep reading. The logical way to go faster is obviously to bolt on a pair of aero bars as a component on your time trial bike or even an ugly pair of clip-on bars to your road bike. But, the problem with adding aero bars is that it changes the dynamics of the machine. The elbow pads are positioned right about where the knees should be when climbing and trying to sprint with aero bars is just plain dangerous. That is one of the reasons why they are banned from road racing competition altogether. The challenge as we all know is to find the perfect mix of comfort with balanced aerodynamics to literally let “speed” happen. So here’s my pitch: why not become aero without aero bar?
Buying Speed: The Mechanical Necessities
What does your road bike look like? Is the stem/bar combo buried with no spacers, or is the stem turned up, causing some of us purists to write you off as decidedly un-cool. Actually, in this case, un-cool is exactly what you want. When you are seeking an overall better aero position, getting a lower profile often means turning the stem up and adding a few spacers assuming you haven’t already trimmed the steering tube within a millimeter of it’s life.
Since aero bars are illegal we are limited to just how aero we can get on a standard road bike, right? Wrong. What if we work on improving core stabilization so that you can assume an aero position on a standard road bike without aero bars? Let’s explore the possibilities, financial and otherwise. For the sake of comfort, let’s pick a pair of flat carbon bars. There are a few choices out there, I like my FSA, which I have positioned with the flat portion turned up about 35 degrees from level, with my Di2 hoods about 5 mm above the top of the bar. I like the tilt because I use the bars to brace my elbows.
Depending on your torso/arm length and reach you may want more or less tilt, but this is all about experimenting to find your balance. The bars may require extra padding for stabilization and comfort. I use nothing more than standard minimum slip Lizard skins for bar covering with no extra padding. Another option is to tape on a wider section of rubber to add extra width, which means better control, a seriously important consideration in this position. Remember, if you are able to make this position work, your only control of the bike comes from the elbow connection on the bars, so make damn sure you are comfortable before taking this set-up out to play!
Note the second layer of bar tape on the tops for stabilization.
It’s More than the Core
To pray successfully and safely, and I want to emphasize the word safely, you need two ingredients:
1) Lots of practice which means you become more stable and more confident. Until you are completely comfortable with the transitional set up, you may be at risk, so make sure you have it dialed even before you actually take your new skill set to the road.
2) Strong stabilizer muscles of the core are just the beginning. “Core” has become a real buzz word for athletes, but very little has actually been written about the sport-specific application of core strength as used in cycling. What we need is to consistently and effectively connect those dots to fast riding. The core connection starts with a more active emphasis on rhythmical out-breath breathing which I intend to cover in a future article. Understand that a strong core does not simply make you a more powerful cyclist. A strong core allows the possibility for a base of ancillary stability. In simple language, that means using the 30+ core muscles including the erector spinae group and connecting them so your major muscles can freely generate a powerful stroke. Consistent deep and focused breathing and a flattened bent elbow body position will add natural core activation to the mix.
The next element is safe practice, which means saddle time or if you are stuck in the cold, the possibility of trying this technique on a trainer to better understand a few of the chains of mechanical and biomechanical micro-adjustments that are needed to maintain effective control of your bike in this position. On the road you and your training partners will find that holding a straight line is a real challenge and the only solution is saddle time. I lace my fingers to enhance the core connection and activate the lower leg muscles more in the hip-flexing back side of the stroke.
Under the heading of “Body FiTTE” our instructors and I work with our clients on daily core activation and a variety of stability exercises to strengthen the rectus abdominus, external obliques, and gluteus medius. Personal coaching favorites include free-form recumbent cycling while lying on the back. Other favorites include the stability ball pike, pull-up bar crunches to work the latissimus dorsi and serratus anterior which are used extensively in this new position. In the tuck position you will find more fire in the gluteus maximus, vastus lateralis and biceps femoris, all of which can be worked well with single-leg stability exercises such as the rotating arc as beautifully illustrated in Shannon Sovndal’s Human Kinetics book Cycling Anatomy. These muscles can also be worked with incline lumbar extensions. More variety of cycling specific strength and flexibility exercises can also be found in my latest book, Mastering Cycling.
A Caveat of Praying
1. Never pray on anything but a predictably smooth road surfaces. In fact you need to practice quick transitions from tuck to brake hoods and back in rapid succession.
2. Never, ever pray on a very fast downhill, especially when you might need to execute a committed turn.
3. Avoid prayer when a strong crosswind exists. Unpredictable yaw conditions such as sharing a road with a large trucks or buses is absolutely to be avoided under penalty of death!
4. It goes without saying that you never want to pray in the pack, only when you are on your own or leading a group.
5. Of course by the time you read this, the powers that be will probably have already decided to change the rules on us in order to outlaw my aero position and make it illegal for competition. Even if that happens, you will still be able to do some damage on training rides, and after all, what is a good training ride but a test of ego without an entry fee?
John Howard is one of the pioneers and true legends of American bike racing, with palmares including: 3-time Olympian, Ironman world champion, bicycle landspeed record, USA Cycling Hall of Fame, and elite and masters national champion. John is also an active cycling coach and the author of Mastering Cycling. Check out more information about John and his coaching at www.fittesystem.com and www.johnhowardsports.com.
Gina Poertner, CHES is the owner of Life Balance Sports, focusing on cycling, triathlon, and running. She is also a FiTTE System Practitioner and Instructor for John Howard Performance Sports and specializes in bicycle fitting and positioning. Find out more about Gina and her coaching at www.lifebalancesports.com.