Cycling has a culture of secrecy. Most people aren't lucky enough to grow up with a network of parents and coaches that can help them learn the ropes of the sport, so they learn the hard way; often by trial and error. Unfortunately this culture often perpetuates itself. When inexperienced riders make mistakes they are often yelled at and made fun of or excluded rather than taught how to do things properly by the more experienced riders.
One of the reasons that I became a coach was to help change this culture. I want my sport to grow and thrive. I want cycling to be more welcoming and open, not more elitist and exclusionary. It took me a lot longer than it should have to learn the things I know now, so I want to help accelerate that process for new riders. Reading books, finding a good coach and asking for help from those that you respect can only take you so far. If you are really serious about getting to the next level, here are some things that you need to know that the pros won't tell you:
1. Slam that stem. Next time you watch a pro bike race, take a look at the bikes. How many spacers do you see under their stems? That's right, zero. When pro cyclists get their bikes each season, they are asked which size frame they ride and the team will order one size smaller. Busy pro mechanics don't have time to keep track of each rider's individual bike fit measurements, so they take out all the spacers under the stem and cut the fork. Done. Vertical drop from saddle to bars should always be at least 25 centimeters. If that's not easily possible, a stem with a steeper drop may be necessary. Some readers may ask "won't that make me uncomfortable?". The truth is, if you want to be comfortable, sit on your couch. The more your back hurts, the faster you get to the finish line.
2. Keep your head down. Aero is everything and human heads are not very aero. Much as we might like to, we can't simply cut them off. Wearing an aero helmet is always an option but usually the best thing to do is simply keep your head down at all times. Pro cyclists are taught to look down at their bottom brackets in order to keep their head out of the wind as much as possible. Those new to this method and concerned about safety may wish to install a pocket mirror in place of their front brake in order to view the road ahead.
3. Under-inflate your tires. By now, everyone should know not to inflate their tires to the maximum pressure limit. As I discussed in my article about tires, higher tire pressure can actually cause more rolling resistance. The real truth is, the softer the better. Most race tires can actually handle pressures 30-50 psi below their recommended minimum inflation guidelines. Lower tire pressure will result in a smoother, more comfortable ride and better surface contact between the tires and the road. Ideal tire pressure will vary depending on your weight, but the rule of thumb is to start at 50 psi and then ride over some potholes, a curb or a stretch of rough pavement just before your race. If you don't feel your rims bottoming out, let the pressure out until you do.
4. Wear clothes that are 2-3 sizes smaller than what's comfortable. I remember reading that when Pearl Izumi sponsored the Fassa Bortolo team, they had to create 5 additional sizes between small and extra small. Compare the average speeds of the pro peloton with that of a typical recreational group ride filled with middle aged men, all wearing extra large Primal Wear jerseys. I don't have to tell you which group is faster, and that is for one reason and one reason only. It's because pro cyclists know something those "reckies" don't: tighter is better. Tighter clothes will not only improve aerodynamics, they will help reduce the flow of "bad blood" to the extremities and make fat look more like muscle. Not to mention, if you're have trouble fitting into your cycling clothes, that's just another incentive to lose weight!
5. Get your bike lighter. With modern technology, most pro bikes weigh in at exactly the UCI minimum of 6.8 kilograms (~15 lbs). Unless you're doing UCI races though, you don't have to abide by this rule and you can go much much lower. Those who raced in the 70s and 80s remember a few old tricks such as drilling holes in their brake levers, chainrings and handlebars and not using bar tape. Another easy way to reduce unwanted weight is to remove the rear brake, which isn't really necessary anyway. If the race is relatively flat, you can remove your inner chain ring and front derailleur as well. Another trick of the trade that comes from the triathlon community is to simply not glue your tubulars, which can save you 50-100 additional grams of rotating weight.
6. No sex within 4 days of the race. It is claimed that testosterone levels are 10-20% higher in men who describe themselves as "extremely frustrated". In a 2006 study, men who had abstained for more than 3 days proved to be more aggressive and less risk-averse. It should be noted however that for women, abstinence will produce negative results. A study in 2008 showed that women who had abstained more than 3 days were overly aggressive and likely to engage in risky behaviors. (Note: this is why it's generally not a good idea for male bike racers to marry female bike racers).
7. Stop hydrating so much. For decades, so called "experts" have espoused the benefits of proper hydration for athletes. Have you ever noticed though that many of these studies are sponsored by the same people that are trying to sell you their hydration products? Do you really think that The Gatorade Sports Science Institute is giving you unbiased advice when they tell you that you should drink more Gatorade? Of course not. Leaving your bottles and cages at home on race day can lower your bike weight by as much as 4 pounds! Not to mention, you can lose as much as 5% of body mass in a single hour when riding on a really hot day. In the course of a 3-4 hour road race, a 160 pound rider could lose more than 20 pounds. Try getting those results with Jenny Craig!
8. Don't shower. An old but true cycling superstition is to never let water contact your skin before a race. Spanish rider Izidro Nozal famously refused to shower for the entire length of the Grand Tours he rode in. He claimed that showering would increase the risk of catching a cold, but the real reason was because it made it much more likely that his breakaway attempts would be successful. After all, who wants to be within 20 feet of the guy who hasn't bathed in 3 weeks?
9. 3 words: beer, waffles and frites. It's no accident that Belgium, a country of just over 11 million, has almost 120 riders in the pro peloton, far greater than their logical share. But cycling is the national sport of Belgium. Belgian children learn to race bikes before they learn to walk. Belgium is home to some of the most famous monuments of bike racing; The Tour of Flanders, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Flèche Wallonne, Gent–Wevelgem and many others. Not so coincidentally, Belgium is also the home of frites (which American's call "French fries" because most of us flunked geography). The secret to their famous frites is that they deep fry them not once but twice in oil and then serve them with heaps of mayonnaise. Similarly, Belgian waffles are served with lots of powdered sugar and real whipped cream. And don't even get me started on Belgian beer! Belgium is home to over 180 breweries, including 6 Trappist breweries and many of the top rated beers in the world. Most Belgian beers are not only higher in flavor, they are higher in alcohol. It doesn't take a statistician to see the correlation between these quality of Belgium's delicious foods and beverages and the quality of it's riders.
10. Listen to the Pros. OK, I understand that you may be skeptical of some of my advice here. So listen to these tips direct from the mouths of some famous former pros:
"When you want to do something you just have to want it more than the others" - Richard Virenque
"Here's the secret: You can't block out the pain. You have to embrace it." - Tyler Hamilton
“When you’re a father, you think twice before doing something stupid”. - Ricardo Ricco
"The method is the same for you as it is for the pros. The only thing different is the workload." - Michele Ferrari
"Hard work, sacrifice and focus will never show up in tests." - Lance Armstrong
I couldn't have said it better myself!
Colin Sandberg is the owner and head coach of Backbone Performance, LLC. He is still a Cat. 1 road racer but he is currently thinking about downgrading. He also coaches a junior team but he still doesn't know what "snap chat" and "twerking" are. If you have questions or comments, please don't send them. If you're still reading this, Happy April Fool's Day!