When I started triathlon in 2012 I felt confident the bike would be my strongest discipline. However, my background included riding a 12KM loop around the lakes near my parent’s house and not a lot else. When I discovered the world of road cycling I was drawn in. The clubs, brutal climbs, watching pro cycling, the cafe culture. It all felt like a world hidden in plain sight.
However, within these groups there were very few triathletes, and certainly no triathletes of a high calibre. I discovered, there’s a big difference between road cycling and triathlon cycling. Especially when you start looking at middle and long distance triathlon. To illustrate this point, let’s look at the difference between the pinnacle of both sports
This is an image from the 2020 Tour de France. As you can see it includes over 100 cyclists inches away from each other on standard road bikes wearing standard helmets. They’re getting ready for a bunch sprint, where the first athlete across the line wins the stage. Within each team you have specialists. Whether they are good at long climbs, short climbs, sprinting or are just all rounders, each rider has a role to play.
This is an image from the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. The world’s fastest Ironman athletes converge here every year to take on the famous course. Riders here are keeping a minimum of 12 metres apart unless overtaking, tackling the course with special triathlon bikes optimised for aerodynamics. They also wear clothing and helmets optimised for speed while riding solo. Once they finish their 180KM they then have to run a marathon.
It doesn’t take a sports scientist to notice that these events are very different. Even if you are taking on a triathlon on your road bike, you still have to keep a distanvce between competitors, and still have to run at the end.
The vast majority of road cyclists aren’t really training. The definition of training is specifically structuring your riding for optimal performance at an event. Most road cyclists are just riding around, enjoying the cafe culture, trying to be the first to the top of the hill, and maybe entering the odd sportive. For them cycling is a way to socialise and see more the local area/world. This is absolutely fine, but as triathletes we have our eyes set firmly on race day. We need to think about our riding very differently if we want to optimise our performance. Here are a few tips on how to keep your cycling triaining specific. We’ll be assuming for the purpose of this article you’re not racing a draft legal race.
Focus on Steady State
When you’re on a triathlon bike course nobody cares about your ability to sprint. You won’t impress anyone by being the first to the top of the hill. Finishing with the fastest bike split doesn’t actually mean very much. It’s far more about setting yourself up well for the run without losing too much time. Even the very fastest Ironman cyclists will be putting out pretty comfortable power outputs over an Ironman bike leg. Knowing that it will start to sting towards the end, and they still need to run a marathon.
Triathlons either take place on closed roads or on roads carefully chosen to minimise encounters with cars. Most courses tend to be pretty flat. As a result, there won’t be much chance for respite once you’re on the bike, except braking for corners. To allow for this, you need focus on a continuous, steady power output for the duration of the bike leg. This prevents us from building up fatigue as a result of pushing too hard at any given point. Especially important on hills when it’s easy to get carried away.
There is absolutely a place for hard intervals to develop your cycling fitness. But these need to be chosen thoughtfully and with purpose. Simply exhausting yourself every ride by pushing hard isn’t the best use of your time.
Get used to riding solo
I have no problems with athletes who occasionally join group rides on the weekend. It adds a nice motivational boost, especially in the winter with conditions not conclusive to long rides. The issue comes however when athletes become allergic to riding solo, and need someone to ride with them. While I don’t want to downplay people’s fears about riding on the road solo, if you ride carefully it’s mathematically no more dangerous than walking down the street. You’ll probably be on your own at points on race day, so you need to feel comfortable in this situation.
Riding solo allows you to focus on your own power outputs, get better at reading the road, and develop resilience to the boredom which can come with long, lonely miles, and results in a lack of focus if you’re not careful. By the time you get to within eight weeks of your race, at least every other ride should be done solo.
Become self sufficient
This is a continuation of the previous point, but in triathlon cycling you need to become self sufficient. You can’t cycle along praying that the puncture gods are on your side. You need to know that should the worst happen, you have everything required to get back on the road.
This also applies to carrying supplies, food and drink. You probably won’t be wearing a cycling jersey on race day, so you can’t stuff your pockets with food and tools. You have to carry all the fluids, food, and tools on your bike. There are normally aid stations on course providing you with water and selected sports nutrition. At big events will have roaming mechanics, but these can take over an hour to reach you, and won’t help with punctures or other minor mechanicals.
Aerodynamics For Triathlon Cycling
When riding solo, your biggest enemy is aerodynamics. The benefit of group riding is that riders in front of you disrupt the air, where you can slipstream them. Just like in Formula One Cars will. However, when you are riding on your own there is no windbreak, so we have to do what we can to reduce drag. The best way to achieve this is to narrow your profile as much as possible and use clothing/accessories. These allow for the smoothest airflow possible around the rider and bike. The rider creates around 90% of drag, so the primary focus should be here rather than on fancy wheels or handlebars.
The best way to narrow your profile is with a pair of clip on aero bars which can be affixed to the majority of handlebars. This gives you a basic aero position, which will be worth minutes on most courses. This position is very different and intimidating for many. Without access to the brakes, twitchy steering and feeling closer to the road, it can be intimidating. It may also be uncomfortable to start with, decreasing the hip angle and recruiting more of the hamstrings than you’re used to. This is a definite learning curve and unsuitable for beginners, but worth sticking with as the gains will be significant.
Choosing the right kit to wear is important whatever your sport. However what you wear during triathlon cycling is of paramount importance. Something like a flappy arm sleeve on a jersey could cost you several minutes as it disrupts the airflow. Most racers will opt for a triathlon suit which is close fitting, quick drying, and with a thinner chamois pad than you’re used to. Sleeved suits are the choice of many as fabric is more aerodynamic than skin. They also offer more protection against the sun. Purchasing an aero helmet is another cost effective way to get faster.
Getting Intensity Right
Getting the intensity right during triathlon cycling is paramount. If you undercook the effort you give away a lot of time in what is easily the longest discipline. If you go too hard you lose a lot of time on the run. I see most athletes going too easy in shorter events and go too hard in longer events. You can find recommended intensity factors (percentage of FTP) in this article, under the intensity factor section: https://www.trainingpeaks.com/blog/an-introduction-to-trainingpeaks-metrics/
You can use a heart rate monitor if you don’t have a power meter. Just swap the power zones for heart rate zones. By incorporating race simulation rides in your training you can set a target intensity.
The Importance of Power
For road cyclists power numbers can be a point of curiosity, or a bragging point. Unless you are really training with purpose, there are probably better places for them to invest their hard earned cash.
As a triathlete however power meters become all but essential if you want to compete at a high level. They are the best way to measure your intensity (see above). Combined with your heart rate mean it’s easy stay in the sweet spot for your race.
You will hear interviews with some of the most successful pros out there who don’t use power meters in races. They claim that “racing is flat out”. This is all well and good if you’ve been training and racing for twenty years and know exactly what your body is and isn’t capable of, but if you don’t know your body well, power becomes very important to manage your training and racing more precisely.
Eating on the go
Most road cyclists will acknowledge the importance of eating on the bike, but most of the time this is pretty simple. They’ll often take on the majority of their nutrition while stationary. Either at a feed station during a sportive or in a cafe at the halfway point of a ride. Triathletes are afforded no such luxury, and must get used to eating on the move. This may sound simple, but conditioning your stomach to take on hundreds of calories while tucked up in an aero position takes practice. When you get hungry towards the end of the bike you can’t put off eating knowing that you’ll soon be sat in a cafe tucking into a cooked breakfast. You still have the run where it’s even harder to eat, so you need to keep the calories coming.
Practice retrieving your food and eating it without slowing down. The more you get used to this, and digesting while on the move, the easier it will be.
Riding in hot conditions
Most triathlons take place in warm conditions. The combination of water temperature and air temperature must be high enough that athletes are unlikely to suffer with hypothermia. Even if things are a bit nippy first thing, even late season races will warm up during the bike. There are of course some notable exceptions, but these are events generally geared towards more experienced competitors.
This means that you need to prepare for racing in warmer temperatures. In some climates this can be very difficult to replicate. If you are training for the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii, it can be difficult to replicate the humidity and heat in a temperate climate. There are various ways you can acclimatise for the heat, but I won’t go into these here. The main takeaway point for the purposes of this article is that you don’t need to acclimatise to riding in the cold. If you’d like to ride outside through the winter then I’m not going to stop you, but you don’t need to invest in a full winter wardrobe and risk your neck on icy roads as a triathlete as you’ll never race in these conditions.
While the sports of triathlon cycling and road cycling are very similar, there are also a number of differences which you should pay attention to if you want to be competitive. You can complete any triathlon with a road cycling mindset. Riding a standard road bike, stopping at feed stations, showing off on the hills, but those who overtake you at 40KPH looking very comfortable manage to do so because they have trained in a very specific way. Focus your training in the same way and you’ll take huge chunks off of your bike split.
To find out the best way to incorporate this into your training and the kind of sessions you can attempt to improve your triathlon cycling performance, check out our Coaching Consultation page.