Triathlon: Cycling Basics and Training Tips

Congratulations – you are about to tackle your latest life challenge: that of swimming, cycling, and running yourself to becoming a triathlete!

A triathlon may sound intimidating, but with the right training and equipment, it is not an impossible task. 

Triathlon Cycling

A triathlon consists of three parts: swimming, cycling, and running. For beginners looking to get started as a triathlete, the swim leg is often thought to be the most challenging. However, many are equally as intimated by the cycling portion of the race. 

The 40-kilometer (24.8 mile) cycling portion of an Olympic-distance triathlon – sandwiched between the swimming and running segments – is the longest of the three disciplines, and is the most crucial to winning the overall race. It’s where you can make up or lose the most time. 

Triathlon cycling can differ from most professional bicycle racing events, depending on whether drafting is permitted during the competition. In some competitions, such as those administrated by the USA Triathlon and the World Triathlon Corporation, drafting is not permitted; thus, the cycling portion more closely resembles individual time trial racing. In other races, such as those in Championship and in World Cup racing, drafting and the formation of pelotons are considered legal. This places an emphasis on running performance as athletes will enter the bike to run transition at the same time due to drafting. 

Generally, triathlon bicycles are optimized for aerodynamics, having special handlebars known as tri-bars or aero-bars, aerodynamic wheels, and other mechanisms. Moreover, triathlon bicycles use a specialized geometry, including a steep seat-tube angle both to spare muscle groups necessary for running and to improve aerodynamics. At the end of the cycling segment, triathletes also usually cycle with a higher cadence, which serves in part to keep their muscles flexible and loose for running segment. 

Training for Your First Triathlon Cycling: Cycling Basics and Training Tips

Love it or hate it, the cycling segment is the biggest chunk of the triathlon. It’s an area where hard work can really pay off – or mistakes can really set you back. Simply put, it is worth doing well, and there are numerous things you can do to get the most out of your time in the saddle. 

The most important factor to doing well on the bike is making sure that you are consistent and that you put in the necessary work. Racing well on the bike is as much about training enough as it is about doing the right kind of training. To know how you should train, you have to know where you are going and what challenges you might encounter. You have to define your goal, as well as your strengths and weaknesses. Some cyclists are great climbers. Others are great at riding at a steady pace all day, but are not so great at short, hard efforts. You have to identify where you fall. 

Take some time and think about it. What are you good at? Are you great at climbing steep courses? How about your descending and cornering skills? Can you sprint at a steady pace? It’s important to know what your strengths are so you can play to them. However, it’s equally as important that you know what your weaknesses are so that you can work on them as necessary. For instance, if you are not a climber but the course you are about to tackle has hills, you know what you need to work on. 

Cycling Basics. During a triathlon, you will likely spend more time on the bike than you will on any other portion of the race. And while some might think that this is the time to rest and take it easy, having a solid cycling pace can take your performance to the next level. To get better at cycling and improve your bike segment, you will need to start training like a cyclist. 

From gear choices to training rides, here are some cycling basics you need to keep in mind to step up your triathlon cycling game to get faster and ride further: 

  • Equipment. Compared to the other segments of a triathlon, the cycling segment requires the most technical gear. There are only a few rules regarding the actual bicycle, so you don’t have to buy a completely new carbon frame with disc race wheels for your triathlon event. If you choose, you can compete using your trusty mountain bike or your beach cruiser; however, a standard road bicycle will likely give you a much better race time. Wearing compatible shoes and using clipless bike pedals will also help you get the most out of each pedal stroke. 

Regardless of the type of bicycle you are using, it is important that the bike is specifically fitted to your body. If possible, consult a bike specialist and have a professional bike fitting done. Also, remember that you will have to wear a helmet when participating in a triathlon, so make sure to choose a good quality one, too. 

Here are some equipment that you should consider:

  • A good bike saddle. If you are not comfortable, you won’t be able to go fast. The forward, aggressive position time-trial bikes put you in can also cause pain and numbness during long-course events. If you are having trouble with your saddle, consider a specially-made triathlon seat to improve your overall comfort in the aero position. 
  • An aero helmet. While aero wheels are great, aero helmets can also provide you with nearly as much time-savings through aerodynamic advantages – and at a fraction of the cost! Before you start thinking about purchasing a new wheelset, consider upgrading a an aero helmet first. 
  • A power meter. Power meters can be expensive. However, a power meter can help you pace yourself during the race and help fine-tune your training. 
  • Training Schedule. If you are training for your first sprint, include 2 – 3 cycling sessions each week, depending on your fitness level and experience on the bike. Build up to 15 – 20 miles, and remember to include some hill training, particularly if your race includes hills. 
  • Technique. When cycling, imagine your foot moving with the pedals like a clock. From the top of the pedal stroke (12 o’clock) to the bottom (6 o’clock), use your quads and glutes to push down. Then, pretend from around 5 o’clock – 7 o’clock that you are scraping gum off of the bottom of your shoe and keep your foot flat. Then, from 6 o’clock back up to 12 o’clock – the recovery portion of the stroke – use your hamstrings to pull the pedal back up. Your most efficient cadence will vary depending on your fitness level, bike, and the terrain, so make sure to practice riding in different gears and on different elevations to find what is most suitable for you and your body. 

Also, practice transitioning smoothly between different gears on your bike, especially as you encounter hills. As much as possible, ride outdoors and familiarize yourself with the rules of the road when it comes to cycling – and use the bike lanes while training! Also, never ride with headphones, as this is both dangerous and not permitted during a race. On your rides, practice starting, stopping, slowing down, shifting gears (especially when approaching hills), turning, clipping in and out of your pedals, and taking a drink from your water bottle (which should always be on your bike). It’s also a great idea to practice riding in a group. 

Triathlon Cycling Training Tips. Here are some tips to help you train and prepare for the cycling segment of a triathlon.

  • Ride more frequently. The first step to building your fitness is spending more time in the saddle. If you are only riding 1 day a week for an hour right now, make that 2 times a week for the next couple of weeks, then work up to 3 times per week. From there, you can make your individual rides longer and/or add some higher-effort intervals. 
  • Develop your technique. In addition to building your fitness, developing your technique is really important for racing triathlon. Good handling is crucial – descending, cornering, and passing with confidence will add up to valuable time savings. The best way to improve your technique is to ride with more experienced riders so that you can observe how they descend, shift, and navigate corners. If possible, find a triathlon club with a group catered for beginners, or a friend who is willing to show you the ropes.
  • Fuel and hydrate intelligently. Fueling is a very important aspect of triathlon racing. Just as majority of your time is spent on the bike, majority of your fueling occurs there, too. Since you can’t really fuel while you are swimming, and it can be more difficult to take in calories on the run, the cycling segment is primarily where you make sure that you are on point for the day. When it comes to fueling, every distance has different demands. You should have a plan specific to the conditions that you will see on race day; however, here are some general recommendations to start with:
  • 1 – 2 bottles of fluid per hour
  • 200 – 300 calories per hour (mainly simple carbohydrates)
  • As it gets hotter, make sure that more of your calories come in liquid form
  • If the race is short than 2 hours, just fuel well before and after – and only drink water during the race

The Bottom Line

Training should be harder and more intense than race day – it should prepare you as holistically as possible. Working on the ideas and tips presented here will have you prepared for the cycling segment on race day, so all you have to do is go out there and ace it. Take the time and do the work, and you will be well on your way to crushing it on the bike and having your best triathlon race yet. Good luck!

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