Often the butt of many jokes on Twitter and dismissed by many experienced athletes, I believe it’s a misunderstood technology which can provide an athlete with unparalleled insight into their training.
The running power meter was inspired by the bicycle power meter, which collects data from a strain gauge in a pedal, crank arm or wheel hub to calculate how much force is being applied by the athlete. This allows them to pace and race better on hills, into headwinds, at altitude and in the heat. The running power meter is not a true power meter in the respect that it is based on an algorithm, using accelerometers rather than a strain gauge. Combined with the pace at which an individual is running to generate a number measured in watts, this gives the athlete an insight into how much energy they are expending to achieve forward momentum.
As a runner, I would put money on you having trained with pace, heart rate and RPE in the past. So to start with I’ll break the pros and cons of each method down to help you make the right decision for your training.
Rate of perceived exertion is how hard you feel you are running, whether you are going eyeballs out in a race (RPE of 10) of gently jogging along on an easy run (RPE of around 4). It’s an important skill to develop for runners of all abilities even if they also use technology, as data doesn’t have all the answers and can fail at any point.
If you are having a bad day, RPE will make sure you don’t over exert yourself and push you towards exhaustion or overtraining
It removes the risk of setting targets that are too high/low for an event
Newer runners will struggle to understand what their bodies are telling them, and may be based on what they perceive as “getting a good workout” rather than achieving the goals of the session
Will cause most runners to head out too fast when fresh, then fade as they didn’t pace themselves well enough
Difficult to accurately measure training load, fitness or fatigue
Requires many years of experience to dial in, and even then the best of us make mistakes
Heart Rate gives us an unparalleled insight to how the body is performing, if your heart rate is outside of normal parameters, your body is trying to tell you something. This helps us avoid overtraining by pushing too hard
Relatively inexpensive, most modern running watches will come with a heart rate monitor built in or come with a free chest strap
Tracking your heart rate over time provides a valuable insight into how well your body is adapting to exercise.
There is a large delay between your body’s exertion and and an increase in heart rate, so it is difficult to use it to pace races with lots of hills/surges as the feedback isn’t immediate, and your heart rate may continue to rise for up to 30 seconds after a tough section
Lots of factors outside of training can artificially inflate our heart rate. A lack of sleep, high levels of stress, temperature, altitude and mensural cycle to name but a few will all affect our heart rate and may result in us running faster/slower than we should
Prone to dropouts or false readings. Where 10BPM is a huge difference, battery or connection issues can leave you vulnerable
Sticking to heart rate based training can be incredibly frustrating for new athletes as they feel they need to walk to keep their heart rate in the correct zone
Pace is probably the most popular method of measuring running intensity, and is still the most important. If I put a running power meter on the foot of every athlete starting a 5K run, the winner wouldn’t be the one who put out the highest number of watts or the best horizontal power, it would be the one who ran the fastest. However there are issues when using a GPS watch to measure pace
Cheap, comes with all fitness tracking devices, or you can use you phone
The winner of the race is the athlete who runs the fastest, so it’s the purest way of tracking intensity
GPS watches can lose signal, or struggle to find it in areas such as woodland or around high rise buildings
Large events place so much strain on GPS systems that they cannot keep up. This resultis in athlete’s watches giving false readings, and getting out of sync with the race organiser’s distance markers. This can result in widespread confusion and frustration
GPS watches are very sensitive to changes in direction. They expect you to continue running in a straight line, so making a U turn or sharp corner can leave the GPS struggling to catch up
It does not take gradient or headwind into account, if you are running up a hill or down a hill, pace data is of very little use
Susceptible to headwinds
Finally, this brings us onto the running power meter, which for my money goes a long way to correcting the flaws of other methods:
Takes hills and wind into account (new generation Stryd only)
Provides advanced running metrics such as stride length, ground contact time, running efficiency, form power and leg spring stiffness
Reliable data in all situations
Measures distance precisely using the accelerometer inside the power meter, giving you an exact pace rather than GPS estimate
Allows you to track improvements easily
Unparalleled treadmill accuracy
Can be confusing at first, requires time investment
Expensive, at £200 for a Stryd unit, on top of a compatible watch, it’s a definite investment in your running
The data can become all consuming, and athletes run the risk of losing sight of the bigger picture (running faster)
Any long term changes in athlete weight require re-calibration and redundancy of previous data
Can be tricky to use if you are aiming for a specific finish time
The biggest benefit for running power for me is consistency and the low margin for error. While the algorithm behind running power is up for scrutiny, as long as the data that is outputted is consistent that’s the most important thing. Whether an athlete is running on a treadmill, up an alpine pass, a road marathon or simply on a jog with friends, I know I have good data which represents their effort, using it to track improvements and calculate fatigue.
Hopefully that has given you an insight into the advantages of using running power over other methods, next up I’m going to delve into a bit more of the science:
What is running power?
Running power is measured in the arbitrary measurement of a running watt. This is a combination of force (in newtons) and speed (metres per second), with higher numbers translating into faster running. When you hit a hill the power meter will recognise this and increase the power to represent the additional effort you are using to fight gravity, while on the downhills it will recognise the gravitational assist and lower the power number to represent the reduced level of force you are having to generate yourself. This helps us pace our runs much more accurately.
Training with Running Power
Hopefully by now the concept sounds appealing at the very least. So how do you get started? First off you need a running power meter. I would recommend against any power meter which generates numbers based on speed derived from a GPS signal. This will normally involve an algorithm which looks at your cadence and your speed to generate an estimation of power. For my money though, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on. Running power in itself is an algorithm, so an algorithm that is required to generate another algorithm has a large margin of error. I use a Stryd footpod which is the most popular running power meter available currently, and will be writing the rest of this article on the assumption this is what you are using.
These numbers, like those from a cycling power meter are fairly meaningless without a benchmark. Is 250W a lot? What should you be hitting in your intervals? Is there a number you should be staying below during your event? When is your run too easy? To find the answer to these questions, we need to find a threshold, a point where an effort becomes unsustainable. The simplest way to use this is to use the Stryd auto CP (critical power) calculator, which harvests the data from all of your runs to give you an estimation of your ability. It’s important you feed it a variety of data points, from sprints to 5Ks and long runs. Don’t expect an accurate number after a few easy runs.
Zone training is nothing new as we have zones for pace and heart rate, but the fact that thresholdis calculated by looking at thousands of data points rather than a single point, means our threshold is more accurate. It also updates automatically with time. Smash out a big hill session which included your best two minute power? Your threshold may improve by a couple of watts. Absolutely storm that cross country race? You may see a nice big boost to represent that. It’s important to note that these are based on a 90 day rolling average, so any data older than 90 days will disappear. This can result in sudden increases/decreases to your threshold power even if you’ve spent the day on the sofa.
The way our power threshold updates itself automatically reduces the need for formal testing every 6-8 weeks to check for improvements, which is arguably the biggest benefit of running power for me, ensuring your threshold is always up to date.
I don’t like running on a treadmill, and I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that you don’t like it either, but sometimes it’s a necessary evil. This can be due to the weather or when we’re in a country where wearing sports clothing in public is not appropriate. One of the frustrating issues I encounter as a coach is accurately recording treadmill workouts. Treadmills vary significantly in accuracy, and the indoor running mode included on sports watches leaves a lot to be desired.
You may be lucky enough to have access to an indoor running facility such as a sprint track or even a full 400M. The lack of GPS signal can be a issue if we want detailed information from our session, but a running power meter provides us with all the information we need, without the GPS accuracy issues which plague even outdoor tracks.
Running with power is the perfect way to record your indoor runs as we get meaningful figures that can be directly compared to your outdoor runs. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if you’re a serious runner who trains indoors regularly, a power meter is an essential purchase.
My preferred way to train on the treadmill is using Zwift, software which takes you through a virtual world as you run where you can join races and complete workouts. It’s free for runners and pairs with your power meter, so download it and give it a go.
Post Run Analysis
Once you get back from your run your watch will upload your data to an analysis platform of choice. Most software now supports running power, however the level of support varies considerably. If you are a basic user the Stryd Power Centre will offer enough information for you, with the bonus of being free, although they will be offering a premium subscription in the near future to access some features. TrainingPeaks offers some basic functionality, but if you are a serious runner only looking to analyse data, and have little to no interest in purchasing a TrainingPlan then I recommend using WKO instead. It costs the same as a year of TrainingPeaks premium with far greater support for running power. There’s a steep learning curve however, so if you’re a recreational runner this is probably overkill.
Assuming your threshold is accurate, you will be able to see in detail how hard you ran. This data will be far more insightful than pace or heart rate, and pick up small, rapid changes much better, such as jumping over a fallen tree or sprinting for a couple of strides to make it across the road before the lights turn green. While these aren’t necessarily actionable data points, the power meter ensures that these efforts are recorded and reflected in your training load calculations.
If you are so inclined, you can take a real deep dive into your data looking at the advanced metrics offered by WKO where you can see your leg spring stiffness, duty factor, percentage of power generated horizontally or vertically, and all manner of other metrics, which I’m not going to go into here.
Two metrics that are worth paying attention to however are running efficiency and horizontal power.
Running efficiency (RE) looks at how effective you are at turning watts into speed. As you may remember, higher speed means higher watts, but you can also create power simply by jumping up and down on the spot, so this metric looks at how efficient you are. Running efficiency is quite a finite metric, but when running at threshold, anything below 0.97 requires improvement, 1.0 is a good score, and 1.03 or above is likely the realm of elite runners. An improvement in RE over time at the same pace/power suggests that you are improving as a runner.
Percentage of power generated in a horizontal plane (or horizontal power) tells you how much power generated is transferred into forward momentum. As mentioned above, you can create power by jumping up and down on the spot, which would create 0% horizontal power, and 100% vertical power. You can’t create 100% horizontal power, but if you can get it up to around 75-80% this suggests you are moving fluidly.
These metrics will vary from run to run, and will be lower on easy or hilly runs so make sure you’re only comparing these with like for like runs.
The real danger here is getting lost in the numbers and over analysing every single data point, or believing you aren’t capable of more than the software’s predictions. We should still be runners at heart, hitting the roads/trails for fun and the challenge of pushing our limits. Running power data is so in depth we can run the risk of becoming data analysts first instead of athletes.
Running Power for Triathlon
So, if you’re a triathlete, how does this fit into your training? How can you use it to run faster off the bike? The answer is in form power.
When we run off the bike we’re never going to run as well as we will at a standalone event. Depending on your event and ability you may be up to ten hours into the race at this point, and your legs will be stiff from the repeated pedalling action on the bike. Your mobility may be impaired and your legs will be fatigued. This can mean you find yourself not running as quickly as you’d hoped. Add to this the accumulation of fatigue over the rest of the run and we’re looking at a very different picture to training.
Running power takes this into account, recognising that you’re putting in the effort, even if you’re not travelling as quickly as you would normally. This is form power, it looks at the vertical and lateral movement from the foot compared to the horizontal power which we touched on above. While generating a high amount of form power is bad news for our running, what’s worse is not taking this into account and pushing harder because we feel we’re slacking off.
This becomes imperative to our pacing. We may know we can hold 5:00 for a marathon when fresh, but after a hard 180Km on the bike this may be 5:20, maybe even 5:30. If we stick to our guns (and pride) aiming for 5:00 per KM we could well be slowly running ourselves into the red and find ourselves walking. Aiming for a power target instead takes our loss of form into account, ensuring we focus on what our body is doing, as opposed to what we think it should be doing.
So, you may be wondering why more people don’t run with power at this point. I’ll break down a few most common issues people have with running power
Elite athletes don’t use it
It’s true, not many professional runners use Stryd, with some notable exceptions such as Ben Kanute and Olympic Triathlon Champion Gwen Jorgennson. More often than not this is the choice of their coach rather than the athlete, who will adapt an “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” approach. Truth be told, if I had an athlete who was winning races training with pace and/or heart rate, I probably wouldn’t suggest they switch to running power. Elite athletes are often training at a level where they can’t afford to try something new, especially going into an Olympic year, so they stick to what they know.
Some very successful coaches out there won’t even want their athletes to wear watches. They’ll stand next to the start/finish line of a track with their stopwatch, barking splits out to runners as they complete every lap. While this is an extreme example, many coaches who qualified in the 20th Century aren’t interested in opening their minds to new training methods. There is nothing inherently wrong with this if they’ve been coaching for 30 years and had great success with their current methods, but they may not be getting the most out of their athletes.
This also extends to athletes who may not understand what running power is, how to set it up, or how to use it to make themselves faster, to them it’s just a number that appears on their watch. I hope to demystify it in more detail with more articles in future.
Just not appealing
For some, training with heart rate and pace is enough, or even too much in some cases. If you live a very busy life and don’t have the time, headspace or inclination to look through your numbers after a run. For some, running is a time for them to switch off, lose themselves in nature, or blow off some steam, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
It’s not a “mature technology”
It’s true that our understanding of running power is accelerating at a rapid pace, in fact it could be argued that the entire concept is in beta testing with rapid developments and new interpretations of the data on a regular basis. The concept is based on an algorithm and it’s hard to see how that could be changed currently, so it’s hard to see it becoming as reliable as cycling power any time soon. That being said, look at the way Team Sky and British Cycling advanced the knowledge of cycling power, first developed in the 80s, to emerge as a dominant force in 2012. There is a lot of potential in running power, and early adopters with the right guidance can capitalise on its benefits.
Early versions were poor
Running power meters first arrived on the scene back in 2015, and by the company involved’s own admission more recently, left a lot to be desired. New generations have improved the accuracy and the stability of running power significantly.
The best thing of all though? Just because you record running power doesn’t mean you can’t also run with pace, heart rate or RPE. You can record all four at once, and choose whichever you want to dictate the intensity of your workout. Following a MAF plan? Increases in power can reassure you the training is working.
It may be you want a running power meter simply to record your pace more accurately, or you’re only interested in a single metric such as leg spring stiffness or horizontal power. As with everything in our sport, you only need to take it as seriously as you want. If you have the cash I recommend you give it a go though, it may be just what you need to take your running to the next level.
There are limited resources out there for running power, but I have a few recommendations:
Palladino Power Project
Steve Palladino is an accomplished running coach who has invested heavily in running power, and has created a Facebook group to act as an open forum to discuss running power. With up to date information and good discussions, I recommend you join: https://www.facebook.com/groups/PalladinoPowerProject
Run With Power by Jim Vance
Unfortunately this book is slightly out of date now and I’m hoping for a second edition, but it’s still the primary source of information for running power.
The Secret of Running by Hans van Dijk and Ron van Megen
This is a more up to date book which includes useful information on Running Power
As a company, Stryd have done a good job of creating a number of resources for runners. This includes articles on their website, their podcast and their Facebook group where runners can ask questions and discuss training with Stryd staff https://www.facebook.com/groups/strydcommunity
I hope this has opened your eyes to the potential benefits of running with power. If you have a running power meter and are struggling to understand your data, why not book in a coaching consultation with us here where we can talk you through the process and help get your training on track.
When I started triathlon in 2012 I felt confident I would be able to handle the cycling well as a I had cycling experience. However, this included riding a 12KM loop around the lakes near my parent’s house as fast as I could 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. It turns out, 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 and takes home the glory.
This is an image from the Ironman World Championship where the world’s fastest Ironman athletes converge every year to take on the famous course. Riders here are keeping a minimum of 12 metres apart unless overtaking, tackling the course with specialised bikes optimised for aerodynamics, along with 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 more different than a layman may give them credit for. Even if you are taking on a triathlon on your road bike, you still have to maintain the same distance 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, and 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, throw yourself up a hill on fresh legs or drop other riders. A triathlon bike course is essentially a time trial followed by a run. 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 hurt towards the end, and they still need to run a marathon at the end.
Triathlons either take place on closed roads or on roads carefully chosen to minimise the chance of you having to give way to traffic, and tend to be pretty flat. As a result, there won’t be much, or any chance for respite, except braking for corners or the dismount line. To allow for this, you need focus on a continuous, steady power output for the duration of the bike leg, so as not to accumulate too much fatigue. Especially when the road points upwards.
There is absolutely a place for hard intervals to develop your FTP, but without applying your new FTP to longer rides which simulate race day, it’s mainly just a way to show off and inspires false confidence.
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 either from a motivational or anxiety perspective. While I don’t want to downplay people’s fears about riding on the road solo, if you ride carefully it’s no more dangerous than walking down the street and it’s something that needs to be addressed if you want to compete in triathlon where you can be on your own for long periods.
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 the tools and know how to get yourself back on the road.
This also applies to carrying supplies, food and drink. You probably won’t be wearing a cycling jersey, so you can’t stuff your pockets with food and tools. You have to carry all the fluids, food, extra clothing and tools on your bike. There are aid stations providing you with water and selected sports nutrition, and 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.
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, in the same manner Formula One Cars will. However, when you are riding on your own there is no windbreak, so you have to do what you can to reduce drag. The best way to achieve this is to narrow your profile as much as possible and use clothing/accessories which 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 wheels or handlebars.
The best way to improve this 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 the general feeling of feeling lower to the ground and an increased sensation of speed that comes with being lower down. It may also be uncomfortable to start with, decreasing the hip angle and recruiting more of the hamstrings than you’ll be 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 over a 70.3 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, as well as offering protection from the sun. Your helmet is also an important piece of equipment to get right, as it produces the most bang for your buck out of all aero upgrades.
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, swapping the power zones for heart rate zones. While power and heart rate zones aren’t completely interchangeable, they’re good enough for me given the variability of heart rate in the first place.
The Importance of Power
If you are a road rider a power meter could be a point of curiosity or something you use to brag to others about your numbers. Unless you are really training with purpose using a turbo trainer, there are probably better places to invest your 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), and combined with your heart rate mean you 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 or at all, claiming 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 a ride 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.
Riding in hot conditions
This is a sweeping statement, but most triathlons take place in warm conditions, as 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 nicely an hour or two into 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, which in some climates 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.
Also known as a sprocket or rear block by newer riders, choosing a road cycling cassette is probably one of the most underrated ways to improve your riding, especially on the hills.
So, what are the most important factors here? We’ll look at the following factors:
Range of cassette
Size of biggest/smallest cogs
Range of cassette
A cassette will either be described by cyclists as wide or narrow. A wide cassette has a large range, meaning the differences between your biggest and smallest gears will be large. This allows you to ride fast on the flats and still ride at a sensible cadence on the hills. Meanwhile a narrow cassette will make it much harder to ride up hills, as the rings tend to have fewer teeth.
If a cyclist is looking for one cassette to use in all situations I recommend a cassette with a wide range. You never know when you might find yourself at the bottom of a leg sapping climb on tired legs with no gears left. A narrow cassette is generally only used for specific events like flat triathlons or time trials. The small gaps between gears helps you find your “Goldilocks” gear while wide cassettes can make it hard to get comfortable if you’re forever in a gear slightly too hard or too slightly too easy.
As an example, an 12 speed 11-23 has rings with the following number of teeth: 11/12/13/14/15/16/17/18/19/21/23. In comparison a 32-11 has 11/12/13/14/16/18/20/22/25/28/32. If I was riding on my 11-32 at a power which suited a 15 tooth cog gear on the back, I’d have to choose between a 14 tooth or a 16 tooth, where if I was riding an 11-23 I could ride in the 15 tooth cog I was after. If you’re riding on rolling terrain this isn’t such an issue as you’ll never be in the same gear for long enough for it to be noticeable. But if you’re taking on a flat course such as Ironman Barcelona, you don’t want to spend 180KM unable to find a comfortable gear.
Range is intrinsic to the size of your biggest ring, which we’ll look at next.
Size of biggest/smallest rings
Cassettes are expressed numerically, such as 12-28 or 11-32. The first number refers to the smallest ring, the larger number to the biggest ring.
If choosing a road cycling cassette for a series of punishing climbs you’ll want to take a 28 at the very least. Potentially even a 30 or 32 if it’s an especially hilly ride.
23 is the lowest number of teeth you’re likely to find on the biggest ring of most cassettes. This is only recommended for strong cyclists riding on flat courses. 25 is traditionally what a lot of professional riders will use, dropping to 28s on mountain stages. For us mortals however 28 is a sensible all round cassette as we don’t have the power to push round a 25 tooth cog on a steep grade without wobbling all over the road.
The smallest rings are generally 11 or 12t (the t denoting number of teeth). These won’t make an enormous difference to your riding unless you’re planning to ride hard on the downhills.
Weight of cassette
Some cassettes cost £50 and some cost well over £300 (Campagnolo we’re looking at you). So what’s the difference? Assuming it’s the same brand and has the same number of gears/teeth, it’s just the weight. You can buy an expensive cassette to shave off a few grams, but that really is it. Shimano’s cheapest 11 speed 11-28 cassette, the 105, weighs in at 284g, with their top of the range Dura-Ace equivalent topping the scales at 192g. The 105 cassette retails at £50, the Dura-Ace at £199, so this is a very expensive way to save <100g. There may be minute differences in shifting performance, but you’re unlikely to notice them if your gears are indexed properly.
If I were to advise a new road cyclist, I’d recommend an 11-28 at the very least to help them up the hills. As they get stronger or if they live somewhere with very few hills they might consider a 25. I would only recommend a 23 for competition day, or race simulation rides, as the ability to get up a hill efficiently far outweighs the benefit of the smaller jumps in gears for me.
Most road cyclists will acquire a collection of cassettes over the years. This gives them the flexibility to choose the right cassette for different rides. I wouldn’t necessarily swap between a 30 for my hilly training rides and my 25 on flat training rides, but if I had a big ride (100 miles plus) or a race, I’d take the time to choose the right tool for the job.
Hopefully we’ve enlightened you to the benefits of choosing a road cycling cassette. But before you go and place your order, some really boring stuff. It’s easy to buy a cassette incompatible with your bike, so make sure you avoid the following pitfalls
Manufacturers are generally not cross compatible. Some Shimano and SRAM products will work with each other, but check with your bike shop before buying. Campagnolo is not compatible with any other manufacturer.
Make extra sure you’re buying a cassette which has the right number of gears. As both 11 and 10 speed cassettes are still expressed as 12-28, this is an easy trap to fall into. To complicate matters, older versions of group sets have less gears, so make extra certain it’s the product you’re after before ordering. Each generation of a groupset will have a code (such as Shimano R7000), so make sure you’re getting the right kit. It’s worth checking with your bike shop if you’re unsure what you have on your bike. As long as you order it through them, they’ll be happy to help.
The cassette that was on your bike when you bought it is often the largest it can take. If you want to go above this you’ll need to upgrade to a long cage rear mech. This isn’t an expensive upgrade, but it’s best to order and install the parts together to save on labour costs if you’re unsure how to do it yourself.
Finally, your cassette is a consumable part and will wear over time. The best way to prevent this is to keep your drivetrain clean. Find out how in our article here
The 2020 triathlon season has been the strangest we’ve ever seen, so what will the 2021 triathlon season look like? As a coach and race director who has been involved with the sport for eight years I wanted to share some thoughts (and speculations) on what 2021 will look like.
Will races go ahead?
Yes. As lots of events started happening late in 2020, I don’t currently see any reason why 2021 would be a complete washout. Not all events will go ahead, some race organisers didn’t survive 2020 so some events will disappear for good. The exact numbers and what that will look like we’ll find out in due time, but it depends on a wide range of factors.
But we have vaccines right?
In the last fortnight a number of highly effective vaccines have been announced, giving everybody hope that life can return to something resembling normal in the next six months. Whether these vaccines get approved, are free of side effects or enough can be manufactured to reach remote regions remains to be seen, but this is a massive boost. Here in the UK our government are forecasting the population could be immunised to the point where social distancing is no longer required by April. Even allowing for logistical issues, we should have a good rate of vaccination by summer.
Will I need a vaccine to race?
This is the big question no organiser wants to commit to this far out, but I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that to start with, probably. As the best vaccines are only 95% effective (which I should point out is still incredible), organisers will not want anyone who has a higher than usual risk of infection on their start line as the law of averages suggests there’s still an above average risk they’ll infect another person. As herd immunity starts to take effect from the majority of the public being vaccinated this may well be relaxed in time, but for the 2021 season I expect many organisers will be asking for proof of vaccination before you can take the start.
What if I can’t get vaccinated?
Most triathletes don’t qualify for “vulnerable” status and are under 60 so we’ll be towards the bottom of the list for immunisation. It may be that races will also accept a negative test result within the last 24 hours in lieu of a vaccination certificate to begin with if vaccinations are not available in your area, but once vaccines become widely available within each country, expect race organisers to take a harder line on this. If you’re unable to get vaccinated for medical reasons, I imagine most race organisers will be able to waive this requirement.
What if I don’t want to get vaccinated?
It’s your right not to get vaccinated, but it’s also the event organiser’s right to potentially refuse entry to anyone who isn’t vaccinated. Hopefully within the next few years the virus will have been stamped out for the most part and proof of vaccination will no longer be required. Until then, you may have to sit on the sidelines or find races which allow unvaccinated athletes. National governing bodies may provide guidance on this, meaning organisers may not have a choice in the matter if they want a race license.
Will there be any spaces?
When countries around the world started locking down in spring 2020 race organisers started postponing events until the autumn, before rolling them into 2021 when it became apparent there was very little chance of the most events going ahead. As these events were rolled over, so were their entries, with all athletes registered for 2020 guaranteed places in the 2021 event. Not all of these athletes will take these places, some will have been so angry at the race organiser they refuse to have anything to do with them. Some will be unable to make the new date, some will simply have lost interest, but I estimate a take-up rate of roughly 60-70%. Even this low estimate means places in 2021 will be very limited, so it’s entirely possible that places at triathlons in 2021 will be hard to come by. 2020 was a tough year for event organisers, but they still had entry fees coming in for the events. Next year will be the real test as their income is slashed due to lack of places they can sell.
I hope organisers add extra dates (races on Saturday and Sunday for instance) or new events appear to provide more athletes with the chance to race, but there’s a chance next year will be very lean when it comes to available slots. If you’re on the fence about making the jump, I recommend you act now.
Will there be social distancing measures in place?
To start with, more likely than not. This may cause frustration for many who may have only been vaccinated to allow them to race, but when you consider how many athletes will live with immunosuppressed individuals who may not be able to get vaccinated for medical reasons, while the virus is still in heavy circulation it’s very likely sensible precautions will be taken to minimise transmission.
This all sounds a bit ominous, will racing ever return to normal?
Probably not in 2021, but you never know. It depends largely on the take-up of vaccines and the resulting infection rates. My inclination is that for as long as daily infection rates remain in the triple figures within most countries/states, that organisers will have to keep measures in place to minimise the spread. As important as triathlon is to us, racing is ultimately a privilege, and we can’t expect to receive special treatment because of how hard we trained.
As events went ahead in 2020 while no vaccines were available and daily deaths were in the thousands globally, I can say with confidence that races will be going ahead in 2021 in some shape or form. Whether your event will go ahead, you’ll need a vaccination or what the format looks like none of us can say, but by the time these details become clear you’ll likely be out of time to train for your event from nothing, so I recommend you take a leap of faith and act as if they’re going ahead.
All predictions made in this article were made on the 27th November 2020, and are purely speculative
New bike day (or NBD) is one of the greatest feelings a cyclist can experience. You have saved up your hard earned pennies to splash out on a new two wheeled piece of joy. The frame is in mint condition, the handling is smooth, and the gears are responsive. You immediately imagine yourself achieving great feats, confident that PBs are on their way.
But, are they? How much faster will a new bike genuinely make you? Or does it just feel faster? Was the purchase really necessary? We’ll start by breaking down the advantages of a new bike, and what they can offer you.
This is easily the biggest reason for most people purchasing a new bike, they want something lighter. If you are currently riding a cheap hybrid you’re replacing with a £1500 road bike you’ll notice a huge difference in weight. However, if you’re upgrading from a £500 road bike to a £1500 one, the weight gains may not be as great as you may think. You might save a kilogram or two, but that’s not enough to make any significant gains on the hills. This is known as diminishing returns, once you are at a certain level of quality you have to spend an awful lot of money to see any improvements beyond that point.
So yes, a lighter frame might shave a few seconds off your favourite climb, but you could easily make the same improvements through training.
Road aero frames have become very popular in the last five years, primarily as a result of amateurs watching professional riders winning prestigious sprints on gorgeous aerofoil frames. The idea is that they make you faster as they cut through the air easier, reducing resistance encountered. Unfortunately they also slow you down on hills due to increased weight due to additional frame material. This is why you’ll see professional riders swap aero frames for the traditional rounded tubing on hilly stages. The majority of aerodynamic drag is created by the rider, with the frame only accounting for around 10%.
If you rarely go above 30KPH on the flats without riding behind someone (rendering the aerodynamic advantage redundant), then a more aerodynamic frame will do very little to make you faster.
You may be tempted to upgrade to a new bike by the latest and greatest groupset. You’ve rightly noticed that a new groupset can cost the best part of a new bike, so why not go all in?. This is thrifty logic in itself, but we also have to reflect back on the title of this post. How much faster will it makes us? The differences between mid range and top end groupsets is marginal for the most part (under 100g in weight savings), and the smoother shifting promised by the marketing will be barely noticeable. Electronic shifting can provide benefits, but not significant enough to warrant a new bike.
This may be especially appealing to those who find their current groupset is being a bit of a nightmare. You may have lost the ability to shift into the smallest gear, the gear changes rattle, and it sounds like you’re riding a bag of nails around. Buying a new bike is an obvious way around this, the current bike has clearly just had its day right? Well, most of your shifting problems could be fixed by turning the barrel adjustor on your rear mech a quarter turn to the left. Even if it’s more complicated, paying a mechanic £15 to index your gears will probably solve most of your problems.
As far as time saved goes, upgraded groupsets offer truly marginal gains for a hefty price tag.
Good quality carbon fibre bike frames are very stiff and responsive. When you put the power down they leap forwards with you, screaming to go faster. Compared to an old steel frame which will flex and feel more pedestrian, this definitely feels racier. This is most beneficial when putting down sudden bursts of power such as those encountered in a race scenario. This can include launching a surprise attack or lunge for the line in a sprint. Realistically, the vast majority of cyclists will never take part in an event where this is important.
It will feel nicer, but few riders will see a tangible difference in performance from a stiffer frame.
Riding the Latest Bike
You may be an individual who wants the latest and greatest of everything available to you. You’ve convinced yourself that you need the same bike your favourite professionals are riding, that it must be faster than last year’s. The truth is that most years the only difference is the paint job, and potentially the groupset if it’s been updated in the last 12 months. Every five years or so a manufacturer will overhaul most models in its range, but even these “all new” versions can be very similar with only a few minor tweaks to geometry or the carbon layup.
Manufacturers need to keep their range fresh and interesting to entice new customers into their range, but if you’re an existing customer with a recent model, there is very little to be gained by upgrading.
Smoother riding, better braking, just feels nicer
When you roll a new bike off of the shop floor it will have been inspected by a professional mechanic. The tyres will be pumped up, the brakes will be tight, the chain will be lubricated and the bearings box fresh. As you ride these parts will start to wear if you don’t perform basic maintenance on them. The simplest way to get this “new bike” feeling is by booking it in for a service with a mechanic who will tighten everything up for you, replacing worn parts (at an additional cost) and making simple tweaks to help it ride better.
Putting your bike in for a service can replicate that new bike feeling for a fraction of the cost.
So, am I advocating hanging onto the same bike forever? Not at all, although we all know someone who has been riding the same frame for twenty years so it’s certainly possible. Personally, the only time I look at buying a new bike is when all of the components have come to the end of their life at roughly the same time and the frame is old/damaged enough that it doesn’t warrant spending several hundreds pounds on fixing.
However, there is more to buying new bikes than just getting faster. You may be looking for a different kind of bike entirely (TT bike, mountain bike, cyclocross, downhill e.t.c.), may want a cheaper bike for winter, one to keep in a second home, one that you use for racing, one with disc brakes or one that just fits you better. Maybe you just love the look of a bike you’ve seen or simply don’t like your current bike. These are all valid reasons for buying a new one, but the main point I wanted to convey was that spending large amounts of money on a new bike won’t necessarily make you that much faster.
Things that will probably make you faster than a new bike include:
A turbo trainer for structured training
A training plan/coach
Improving your diet
Keeping your bike well maintained
A new bike will probably make you faster while it’s still in perfect working order and you’re motivated to ride it hard. Realistically however, it may only be a matter of months before you find yourself in the same position you’re in now, so think twice before you feel the need to blow the budget on a new bike.
If after reading you still see a new road bike if in your future, make sure you choose the right one by following our guide here
Taking the decision to train for a triathlon is the biggest step many will take in their sporting lives. Many will be complete novices to all three sports, captivated by the idea of stringing swimming, cycling and running together, it’s the challenge that draws us in. However it can be difficult to know where to start, there are thousands of articles, books, YouTube videos and podcasts to wade through to get a well rounded picture of how to train effectively for the sport.
To help, I wanted to condense all of the knowledge I have attained over the years into the top ten training tips for taking on your first triathlon. I could easily make a list of the top 100 training tips, so I’ll have left a few out, but these should help stop newcomers from making embarrassing mistakes, or putting themselves at the risk of injury.
1. Slow Down
You’re no doubt excited to start your triathlon training as a beginner, and I’m excited for you, but we need to dial things back to help keep training efficient. If you swim, bike and run as fast as you can every day, you’ll burn out and will never reach your full potential. Two, maybe three workouts each week should be really challenging, and the other days of the week should be spent recovering from these hard efforts. This ensures you’re ready to go for the next hard session. These easy days should be undertaken at a pace where you could hold a conversation if needed. Your main concern will probably be not being fit enough at this point, worried about failing to finish. But if you are so over trained that you’re exhausted on the start line, you’re not going to have a good race.
2. Progress Your Training
If you have signed up for a sprint triathlon (750M swim, 20KM cycle and 5KM run), you could be forgiven for slowly building yourself up to these distances then figuring it’s job done and you can focus on getting faster over those distances. Hitting the distances in training is a milestone you should be proud of, but you should keep extending your training beyond these distances. After reaching 5K run 6K, 7K, 8K, or even further to keep pushing yourself. This will improve your aerobic fitness, making you more efficient over shorter distances. Plus you’ll have the confidence of knowing you can run over the distance, meaning race day should feel easier! You should also start running intervals such as one minute hard one minute easy repeated 20 times. Progress this by reducing the rest or increasing the duration of the hard running. Keep moving forward with your training on your hard days.
If your race takes place in a lake, sea or river, you need to be training there, in the wetsuit you’re planning to wear on the day. Swimming in open water is totally different to swimming in a pool, and you need plenty of practice before the big day. Otherwise you’ll likely find yourself panicking and disorientated. Most lakes will provide coaching, to provide you with a much smoother transition into the open water.
4. Learn to ride at a consistent effort
This is especially true for those training for a long or middle distance race, but it’s worth remembering for all distances. When we used to race bikes as kids we were primarily racing from lamppost to lamppost, pushing hard for short periods. While most of us are wise enough to realise this isn’t the most efficient way to train for a triathlon, it’s tempting to push hard for a few minutes, then recover, push hard for a bit, recover, then push really, really hard up a hill. This is especially prominent for riders who are big Strava users, and want to push hard where they know there’s a segment. Even if you are racing a sprint triathlon you’ll be spending a minimum of 30 minutes on the bike, so you need to learn to spread your effort evenly over this period, especially as you have a run at the end!
5. Mix up your swim training
Swimming can be intimidating and may feel like a fight for survival when all you want to do is make it out of the water. As such, you could be forgiven for getting in the pool, slowly working your way up to the required distance for your race, then repeating this every week. Not only is this pretty boring, it’s also ineffective as it won’t help you swim better. Including a warm up, main set and cool down is a good place to start. Split your swim up into shorter segments, such as swimming 100M fast with 30 seconds rest between each interval. You should also include swimming drills to help you improve your technique, which is free speed.
6. Practice your race day nutrition
If you’re going to be competing for anything longer than 90 minutes, you will probably need to eat during your event. Carbohydrate is the body’s primary source of fuel for the body. When you start to run out of this valuable resource your performance will fall off a cliff as your body runs out of glucose. Practice eating in training, find what foods work for you, and when you need to take them on. Grabbing an unknown product from a feed station when you start to feel weak could easily lead to cramps, stitches, or vomiting, none which are generally not conclusive to fast race splits.
7. Research your event, and train accordingly
If you have a hilly race, train on the hills. If you have a sea swim, train in the sea. If your race is in a hot climate, try to replicate this during your training. It sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how many people forget this if they follow a generic training plan. You should also take the time to familiarise yourself with the course in detail. This avoids any embarrassing extra laps on the bike or getting lost in transition.
8. Buy a turbo trainer
Training for the bike, especially if you live in a city can restrict you to one ride a week. By purchasing a turbo trainer you are able to ride from the comfort of your home on a variety of terrain (mountains, flats, rolling hills). You don’t even have to worry about traffic, potholes or bad weather. It also allows you to train properly by following workouts, or take part in virtual events.
9. Train in poor conditions
A turbo trainer is a fantastic tool for allowing you to ride all year round, but that doesn’t mean you should jump on it instead of a long weekend ride at the first sign of clouds. You can have the best fitness and the flashiest bike, but if you can’t race in the wet or the wind, you’ll find yourself losing time hand over fist when the weather turns. We’re not suggesting you take any risks, if your race is in August you probably don’t need to head out in sub zero temperatures on icy roads, but having the experience to adapt to different situations will pay dividends on the big day.
10. Practice your transitions
Don’t leave it till race day to practice transitioning from swim to bike, or bike to run. The first time you come out of the open water you may feel like you’re about to fall over and it’s not uncommon to see new triathletes sat on the floor next to their bike waiting for the world to stop spinning. Equally, coming off the bike onto the run will leave you with wooden legs that feel disconnected from the rest of your body. The more of these you practice in training, the smoother the process will be on race day.
I hope that has given you some insight into how to train successfully for a triathlon. There are thousands of moving parts to consider, but we take the stress out of training with our bespoke coaching programmes for athletes of all abilities. Learn more here
The fitter you are, the faster you are, right? Well, it’s not quite as clear cut as that in the real world. Fitness has an enormous effect on as athlete’s ability to swim, bike and run as fast as possible, but it’s by no means the only factor.
Let’s take the term fitness for a start, it’s a phrase I really don’t like because of how vague it is; someone could be able to bench press twice their body weight, summit Mount Everest, free climb up the Dawn Wall or walk the length of the River Thames. All impressive achievements in their own right, but how would an individual who achieves any of these impressive feats fare in a triathlon? Better than your average member of the public you’d wager, but the chances are they’d be soundly beaten by those who are physically weaker, with a lower resting heart rate and a lower V02 max but who are more experienced in the sport.
How do we measure fitness? There is no right answer or wrong answer here, lots of individuals will have a different idea of what fitness means, however as triathletes we’re interested in the bottom line, our race results . Yes improvements to our FTP and threshold heart rate are all stepping stones to success, and for some individuals these numbers are more important than race results, however I believe these individuals are few and far between. Those who measure everything objectively can often struggle on race day and find themselves disappointed when their predictions and meticulous calculations fall short, and they’re never short of an excuse to explain a poor performance (but then again, how many triathletes aren’t?!). You can be very fast and very fit, that’s what we’re all aiming for, but it’s also possible to be the highest FTP of the field, yet find yourself struggling to make the top ten.
An athlete is fast when they have the confidence, the skills and the experience to complete the race in the fastest possible time, with the resilience to keep pushing when their body is telling them to stop. The winner of the race is the one who crosses the line first, not the one with the highest power numbers, the lowest level of cardiac drift or the most expensive bike. Let’s break it down and have a look at the traits of successful triathletes in each of the disciplines.
In the water, the fast athlete goes off like a rocket at the start, finding fast feet or setting the pace themselves. They then settle into their race pace, sighting often to stay on track. They feel comfortable drafting, and come out of the water towards the front of affairs. They’re not overly concerned about optimal stroke length or stroke rate in the melee of a triathlon swim, they’re more worried about swimming fast and coming out of the water with the fast guys. They swim in the open water at least once a week, and work on their technique all year round, with plenty of hard swims thrown in as well.
The experienced triathlete knows there’s a lot of time to be made up in transition. You may shrug your shoulders at the thought of saving 20 seconds over a long event, but imagine how happy you’d be with taking 20 seconds off of your 5K PB? Fast athletes can easily save time by practicing wetsuit removal after every training swim, memorising where their bike is, leaving it in an appropriate gear, with their items left on the bike in the order they’ll need to attach them. They have also practiced their mounting technique, comfortable with whatever method they have chosen rather than simply hoping for the best.
Too many triathletes are addicted to their turbo trainer, but while time spent riding indoors will make you fitter, it doesn’t teach you how to take a the corner in the wet, carry momentum through a rolling section, fix simple mechanicals, ride up hills, brake effectively or stay on your aero bars on anything except a perfectly flat, smooth tarmac. ERG mode is especially bad for creating cyclists who can only ride at one cadence in a very narrow operating window. Fast cyclists know their bike and how it works intricately, they can carry speed through the corners and drop down the descents, making up time on fitter, less skilled cyclists hand over fist. They’re also able to spend longer in an efficient TT position without developing neck or back pain, because they’ve put in thousands of miles on their race bike, instead of treating it like it’s made of sugar glass. Rather than only taking it out on the sunniest of days, they’ve learned how to ride it in the wet and giving it a thorough clean after every ride to prolong the life of the parts. When on race day the heavens open, a strong headwind develops or strong gusts try to throw them off their bike, they keep their head down and keep making progress rather than excuses. Nobody cares about your W/KG if you’re sat on the side of the road staring at your flat tyre like someone has just asked you to fix the space shuttle. Fast cyclists do their quality training rides on the turbo, but in anything except the foulest weather they hit the road for their easy/long rides to build their confidence and road craft.
After the bike it’s tempting to take a few moments to yourself to recuperate and mentally recharge before the run. If you’re racing an Ironman, you’re new to the sport or you had some issues on the bike you need to address this is fine, but if you’re going for a good time you need to go into T2 with a detailed plan of how you will switch from bike to run. Fast athletes can picture the exact route they’ll take to their bike racking, where their shoes will be waiting with elastic laces ready for them to fly onto the run course with.
When those who focus endlessly on numbers and micro analysing their training are passed on the bike, their internal dialogue will nearly always be “They’ve gone out too fast, I’ll catch them on the run”. This may well be true in many cases, but even if they are faster on the run than someone who rode it like they stole it, the fact they arrived in transition 2 ten minutes later somewhat offsets this. Most athletes will have a target they’re aiming for on the run, and pacing is paramount, but the skill to a fast run is knowing when to push. Staying below a certain BPM is a good idea if it’s your first attempt at the distance or the conditions are unusual, but if you’re into the last third of the run and your body is screaming at you to move faster, you should probably listen to it. Proper pacing is incredibly important for the bike to ensure you have good run legs, but you want to make sure you pace your run to perfection so you cross the line having left it all on the course. Fast runners don’t even look at their watch during shorter events, they know how to push their bodies to their absolute limits, and listen to their breathing and legs rather than their heart rate.
Race winners are the athletes who practice their nutrition in training, scout the course by riding or driving it, ride their bike in full race spec, practice speedy transitions in their brick sessions, push themselves to the max in fitness tests, and are not afraid of new thresholds or tough workouts. Rather than finding excuses they step up to the challenge and have an intrinsic motivation which keeps them going even when they feel the world is conspiring against them.
Despite what you may think by reading this far, I’m a relatively data heavy coach who spends hours pouring over data files and prescribing workouts to influence power curves, embracing new technologies such as running power. However, recently it has become clear to me just how important coaching the human is rather than simply the body, and how disappearing down a rabbit hole of physiology for the pursuit of 1% improvements can result in us missing the big picture.
It’s your hobby and you can train for it however you like, but I highly recommend you spend a few years simply enjoying the sport and learning more about your body before you begin getting the textbooks out, or even better hire a coach who can help you navigate the maze of endurance coaching.
Ergometer mode, or ERG mode as it is more commonly known, is a function of most modern smart trainers which allows the trainer to set the resistance for you. If your target is 200W and you go above this, the trainer will reduce the resistance to stop you from going any higher. If your wattage drops below the target it will increase the resistance to encourage you to put more force through the pedals and get back up to target.
To many cyclists this sounds ideal. It allows them to relax for a bit and watch some TV while they train or listen to an audiobook. Safe in the knowledge that their trainer won’t let their power drift too high or too low. However, it’s not without its problems, which I’ll go into here.
Riding in a vacuum
When riding in ERG mode you don’t have to think about gradients and changing gear. However as your target event is probably outside, this does not prepare you for the realities of racing a bike outdoors. Make sure you do your steady state rides outside of training mode on a virtual course to prepare you for this. This is especially important in the last eight weeks before your event.
The Spiral of Death
If your cadence drops significantly or you stop pedalling ERG mode will instigate what many call the spiral of death. This is when it increases resistance dramatically as you’re not putting out enough power. If you’re in the middle of a tough interval, this can feel like riding through wet cementas you try to pick the pace up again. We all drop our chain, have to answer the door or adjust the fan sometimes, so this is something to be conscious of. You may end up having to skip an interval or even abandon the workout as a result.
Problems with Power Meters
If you own a power meter you should be using it for all your training to make sure all the numbers match. This helps to keep your data clean and ensure all your intervals are accurate. There is something of a problem however as the training software will listen to the power meter, check the power output against the target, and then tell the trainer to increase or decrease the resistance. When the device creating the resistance isn’t the same as the device measuring the power, the ERG mode isn’t nearly as accurate or immediate to change reistance. This means you need to focus much more on holding targets, offering the worst of both worlds.
For harder workouts this can be beneficial if you feel you would struggle to complete it otherwise. However I find that more often than not it’s more effort than it’s worth.
Inability to change gear
You can physically change gear in ERG mode, but the trainer will pick up on this pretty instantly and change resistance. If you find yourself pedalling squares desperate to increase you cadence, the only way to do this is by pedalling harder to lower the resistance. If you’re really struggling in a workout however, your ability to hold this cadence may be compromised. This will likely result in your cadence slowing again and ERG mode “carrying” you through the rest of the interval at 40RPM. There is a time and place for this, such as a ramp test, but you can’t get through every hard interval this way. Disabling ERG mode will give you a more authentic training experience.
Perhaps the biggest issue I have with ERG mode is the way it encourages a slow, lazy cadence. Riders who start to fatigue will naturally slow their cadence, yet ERG will push back to ensure they stay within the power target. This can result in riders associating harder efforts with a slower cadence and ultimately spending most of their time in tempo and sweetspot at 70RPM, well below where I’d want to see athletes riding, even the low cadence advocates will race at 80-85RPM. You can’t afford to spend time fiddling with your gears trying to find the narrow cadence window you’re used to riding in from training.
Uneven wear on cassette
If you do a lot of riding in ERG mode, you will be doing a lot of riding with minimal (if any) changing of gear, which can create a lot of uneven wear on the cassette, wearing one or two cogs excessively which will lead to shifting issues.
I’ve given ERG mode a bit of a bad rep so far, but there are some definite benefits to using it.
No need to concentrate
If I have to use the turbo for my steady state rides, I’m happy with the entertainment provided by the scenery and the changing gradient, but that’s me, and I know not everyone is as easily entertained. For many, turbo training is the perfect time to catch up on the latest Netflix series or watch a film their partner isn’t interested in. With a pair of bluetooth headphones they can enjoy some televisual entertainment while riding, and ERG mode keeping them within the power boundaries. This is more useful for steady state workouts than intervals, as most software does not integrate with video, so you may end up being caught unawares by a sudden increase in resistance.
Helps you complete tough workouts
The mental element of training is just as important as the physical element of training, and for many the presence of ERG mode is the difference between them completing or failing a workout. I’d much rather someone limps over the line and completes a workout at a low cadence than they have to give up and bail twenty minutes in because they can’t hold the power without their trainer pushing back. This provides a safety net for many cyclists, and as long as they’re conscious of the shortcomings of ERG mode (not to let cadence drop too low, don’t stop pedalling, e.t.c.) then they should do whatever it takes to complete the workout.
So, should you ride with ERG mode? As ever… it depends. For workouts which include lots of micro bursts or short sharp increases in intensity such as V02 or sprints, absolutely not. If it’s an easier workout where you’re more concerned about going too hard than too easy and want to watch Breaking Bad while you do so, then it’s a good choice.
The difficulty comes with the middle ground, the tempo and sweetspot rides where riders may find comfort in the knowledge ERG mode will help them complete the workout. For this, I would look at how close to race day you are, if you’re six weeks out from your A race, then switch it off and learn how to control the intensity yourself. If you’re nine months away from your next big event and just doing some base training, then do whatever it takes to get you through the session.
TrainingPeaks is a fantastic tool for planning and analysing our training, but we need good quality data to make informed decisions. If we have bad data we end up making bad decisions which can lead to burnout or even failing to finish your race! So, how do we keep our data clean? There are three areas I consider to be very important, we’ll take a look at each on a case by case basis, looking at common pitfalls and how we can avoid them.
We need to make sure that the data from one workout is comparable to the workout before it, and the ride after it. The biggest area this can be a problem is with cycling power, specifically when athletes change power meters between activities or fail to recalibrate their devices.
If you are only training indoors and using the power meter built into your trainer, you need to make sure you are re-calibrating the power meter (known as completing a spindown in most cases) every time you transport it, or every four weeks out of habit. As trainers are moved around and knocked about, they can lose their accuracy so the trainer needs to recalibrate itself to ensure the data stays accurate. I once failed to recalibrate my turbo trainer for several months, got myself up to an FTP of 4 W/KG, then re-calibrated my trainer, found workouts impossible, and discovered I was only at 3.6 W/KG! If you are planning to use your power pedals on race day, you should use your power pedals for every ride so you’re training at the same numbers you’ll be racing at, otherwise you run the risk of your intensity factor target on race day being based on turbo numbers, not power pedal numbers, resulting in you blowing up as a result. If you are using a bike based power meter (which I highly recommend) you still need to perform a zero offset (or recalibration as some brands call it) weekly, or whenever you move the power meter from one bike to another. Another issue can be the right pedal running out of battery or experiencing connectivity issues with the left pedal, so keep an eye on that.
Running power meters do not require regular calibration, however the numbers are based on your weight, so any changes to your weight will require you to reset your thresholds. As such I only recommend updating your weight if you have lost/gained weight that has been fairly static for a couple of months, or at the start of the season before your baseline testing.
Heart rate can occasionally be very low if the your chest strap takes time to make a good connection, or if your optical monitor struggles to get an accurate reading for whatever reason, such as a loose watch strap or heavy sweating. If you find yourself with a consistently low heart rate reading during a workout, make sure your monitor isn’t upside down!
GPS accuracy varies a lot, especially in urban areas or thick woodland, where you can end up with very high or low numbers. I once had an athlete run a 10K around the City of London, where the GPS trace accidentally made its way to the top of a skyscraper, leading TrainingPeaks to mistakenly believe she’d gained 150M of elevation in 10 seconds, sending the TSS score rocketing.
Finally we have elevation, if your GPS or altimeter is putting out bad data it can have you down as running thousands of metres above sea level, resulting in grossly exaggerated TSS scores.
If you find yourself with dropouts or spots of bad data, TrainingPeaks allows you to rectify this on the graph view within a workout. Simply click and drag your cursor over the problematic area, then click on the appropriate button in the top right of the graph for different data field: W for watts, KPH for speed and BPM for heart rate. From here you can select “fix”, which will allow TrainingPeaks to create a preview of the data smoothed out, with the option to apply or discard the changes. In some cases, such as with horrifically inflated elevation data, it can be better to delete the data field entirely, or switch the TSS calculation to hrTSS. If you start playing around with the data but make a mistake you can’t undo, you can simply download the workout from the “files” section in the top right hand corner of the workout view, and re-upload the original file. You’ll lose any comments or other changes you made to the workout, but the original file will always be in tact.
Sometimes bad data slips under the radar, looking at the PMC for big spikes can be helpful, as can browsing your peak performances on the TrainingPeaks mobile app and looking for numbers which you know are unrealistic. If a huge wattage or jump in pace isn’t accompanied by an increase in heart rate, you can be pretty sure it’s bad data.
The performance manager chart found in your dashboard is a coach and athlete’s best friend, it allows us to see how fit an athlete it, how fatigued they are, and how ready they are to perform. The numbers here will only be accurate if we have enough data from your training history to give us accurate insights into your training history. A world champion could create a TrainingPeaks account, but without any information on their training history TrainingPeaks will assume they are a novice, and suggest that they are incredibly fatigued after a couple of what would be a couple of very easy workouts for them.
If you are already an established athlete, you will need to sync your TrainingPeaks account to your fitness tracker/software of choice. Depending on the service you link to, it may or may not import all of your previous activities into TrainingPeaks (As an example, Garmin will, Zwift will not), and while manually uploading all of your data will seem like a gargantuan task, it is important you upload at least the last 42 days, as this is the constant that Critical Training Load (CTL) is based on. If you or your coach plan to use WKO, you will need all of your workouts from the last 90 days.
If you are a new athlete who doesn’t have any data to upload, then you will need to take the numbers with a pinch of salt for the first 42 days until TrainingPeaks has enough data to give you accurate figures. I’ve seen many posts on the TrainingPeaks Pain Cave Facebook Group group from individuals concerned that their form is -50 and wondering whether they are overtraining. More often than not they simply don’t have enough quality data uploaded so TrainingPeaks has no point of reference.
All calculations on TrainingPeaks are based on thresholds. If your thresholds are incorrect your TSS scores will be incorrect and everything else gets knocked out of place, from your PMC metrics to your workout metric, even the targets of your workouts themselves.
While I’m not going to go into testing protocols here, it’s important that you undertake fitness tests within the first 42 days for each sport you’re planning to log on TrainingPeaks. I spend the first month with each athlete focusing on fitness testing, staggering them so they’re not in close proximity, but ensuring we have good, relevant data to work with.
There are two problems athletes struggle with when setting thresholds, the first is basing their threshold off of their lifetime PB (in extreme cases, their best 10K time from 20 years ago), or not updating their thresholds regularly enough. By using a threshold that is too high you will struggle to complete workouts, by using a threshold that is too low you are doing yourself a disservice and not training hard enough, getting overly inflated TSS scored in the process.
I recommend you test each discipline every 6-8 weeks (perhaps more regularly if you’re a single sport athlete) for improvements. If you put in a slightly lower number during the test but your workouts otherwise feel good, you could put the result down to a bad day and leave the number where it is, but if you put in a noticeably lower number (+/- 10 watts or seconds per kilometre) you need to take it on the chin, lower the threshold, and review your training strategy. Do not become a victim of the vanity FTP.
To conclude, here are the main takeaway points:
Ensure you use the same power meter for all workouts, and perform a zero offset regularly
Ensure TrainingPeaks has all of your data from the last 42 days before you start using the PMC to plan your training
Keep an eye out for big drops, spikes or gaps in data, and do your best to fix them using the tools in TrainingPeaks
Be honest with yourself about your thresholds, and re-test regularly
It can be time consuming to look through your data and make sure everything is up to date. If this seems like too much work, or you don’t know what to do with your data once you have it in order, take a look at our online coaching.
Buying a road bike is one of the most exciting purchases you’ll ever make. This guide is primarily aimed at those buying their first road bike, but I hope to be able to use my experience in bicycle retail to help all cyclists make more informed choices, and save themselves some cash along the way.
Chances are that until now you’ve been riding around on a mountain or hybrid bike, and are looking for some serious speed gains by upgrading to a road bike. However, it can seem like a complete maze. How much should I spend? What makes bikes more expensive? What’s a groupset? What’s the right size? Should I get a women’s bike? What can I upgrade? Having spent two years working on the shop floor at a highly reputable bike retailer, these are all questions I hope to answer in the course of this article. We’ll assume you’re a triathlete at this stage, but if you are simply looking to get fit or look to take place in road cycling events, then disregard the references to triathlon, the rest of the points will be just as relevant.
What is a road bike?
This may seem like a silly question to ask, but it’s worth making sure we’re on the same page before we start. A road bike is a lightweight bike designed exclusively for use on the road, traditionally with narrow tyres and dropped handlebars. It is not a:
Normally identifiable by the flat rather than dropped handlebars, these have wider tyres with more tread in them to handle minor off road sections more easily such as bridleways and towpaths.
You don’t want one because: It is much heavier, and you’ll be slower due to the drag created by wider handlebars. A few manufacturers make high end hybrid bikes, but most are cheap with components that will break/wear quickly, and wheels which will buckle easily. The saddles also tend to be awful.
Very similar, and easily confused with a road bike by newbies, check for the wider, lumpier tyres and greater clearance around the tyres themselves as they get clogged with mud.
You don’t want one because: The geometry is different on a cyclocross bike, with the bottom bracket (where the cranks connect to the frame) being higher, and often further forwards than on a road bike. These are designed for an hour of hard riding, not a long day in the saddle.
Used on velodromes, these often catch the eyes of customers because they are so cheap and light.
You don’t want one because: They have no brakes! Even if you were skilled enough to ride one on the road, they are banned in triathlons as they do not have functional brakes, you slow down instead by slowing your pedalling and pushing against the pedals. They also have no gears, making them very challenging to ride in traffic or on hills, for experienced riders only.
The gravel bike is a recent addition to the bike world, it has a very similar geometry to a road bike but the wheels/tyres of an off road bike. They are setup for comfort, and are very popular in North America where there are large amounts of roads/tracks are gravel.
You don’t want one because: They tend to be slightly heavier and not as responsive as proper road bikes, and the heavier tyres will have a notable effect on your speed. Additionally many only have one chainring which can make life harder for you on steep uphills or downhills. However, if you’re only going to be taking part in short triathlons and don’t plan on spending much time riding on the road, then you could certainly get away with it.
I know it has triathlon in the title, but if you don’t know what a triathlon bike is, you don’t need one. These are bikes designed for pure speed, where your elbows rest on specially designed pads and your arms rest on aluminium/carbon fibre bars, putting your body in a very aerodynamic position, narrowing your body and reducing the amount of drag.
You don’t want one because: You have no access to the brakes when in the aero position and it can feel very twitchy. They’re the Ferrari of the cycling world, so to use one with any confidence you need to have first pushed the limits of cheaper, more accessible machinery.
Now we know we need a road bike, we need to look at what kind of road bike we’re after. There are three different types of road bike, just to confuse matters even more!
Examples: Trek Emonda, Cervelle R series, Specialised Tarmac, Cannondale SuperSix
These are the lightest and most responsive road bikes out there, built to be as quick as possible uphill. On hilly or rolling courses these are the bikes pros will be using, where every gram matters to help them get to the top of the hill in first place. These tend to be fairly aggressive bikes, and you may struggle to get comfortable on one if you have limited mobility. For triathletes weight is rarely the primary concern however, so these aren’t bikes I generally tend to steer athletes in the direction of.
Examples: Cervelo C series, Cannondale Synapse, Specialized Roubaix, Trek Domane
These bikes are perfect for those getting into the sport later in life, or those who are more worried about all day comfort than outright speed. If you’re looking at at Ironman event, a road endurance bike is probably your best bet. Some models include various springs/suspension tricks to soften the ride, but at the expense of stiffness.
Examples: Trek Madone, Specialized Venge, Cannondale SystemSix, Cervelo S Series
This subcategory appeared relatively recently, a bike where the tubing and cabling is all designed to be as fast as possible in a straight line. Where performance and endurance bikes normally have rounded tubing, a road aero bike will be comprised of tubes shaped like aerofoils much like the wing of a plane, to allow for extra speed. That being said, you have to be going quite fast to gain any real benefit from this, close to 30KPH, to see the very small improvements. Some of the higher end models come with handlebars which are tapered for additional aero benefit, which can restrict your ability to fit aftermarket aero bars (to retrofit your bike into a cheap triathlon bike), so bear this in mind before you splash your cash.
Finally, we have the contentious matter of women’s bikes. Many women will look only at women’s bikes believing they are the only bikes that will fit them, but the bike industry is slowly turning its back on the idea of a women’s specific range. Your traditional women’s bike will have a slightly shorter top tube as women are perceived to have relatively shorter arms than men… and that’s about it, apart from a different paint job. Specialized (the brand) looked at the bike fit data from thousands of riders who came to them for fits over the years, realising that the majority of women would be perfectly comfortable on a unisex bike, and that those who struggled with the long reach could go for a slightly shorter stem without any major effect on the handling. I know far more women who ride unisex bikes than who ride women’s bikes, so don’t feel you’ll come across as being masculine or be uncomfortable on a unisex bike, the items you need to worry about gender specificity for are saddles and clothing.
How much should I spend?
This question comes down to your individual budget, but I can provide you an outline of what you can expect for your money when looking at new, fully priced road bikes.
These are entry level road bikes. I bought a Specialized Allez for £500 as my first bike, and overtook hundreds of people on fully specced triathlon bikes over the years I had it. They’re not as light as others, and won’t have the fanciest groupset, but they’re still perfectly lethal in the right hands. You’ll probably find yourself looking to upgrade components on this kind of bike within a year or two from a mixture of performance concerns and wear, leaving you with a bike you’ve spent several times the cost of the bike upgrading, so bear this in mind.
This is about as much as anyone needs to spend on a road bike, you don’t get a whole lot more for your money beyond this price point. Compared to entry level bikes, you get lighter, more responsive groupsets, stronger wheels, a lighter, stiffer frame and often a few little extras depending on brand, such as an integrated hydration system or special forks that reduce vibration.
These are high end road bikes, once you’re spending over £2000 the diminishing returns start ramping up considerably. You can get high end groupsets, nicer wheels and very lightweight frames, but you probably wouldn’t have noticed the differences unless the salesperson pointed them out. These bikes can also be tricky to maintain due to their design, so aren’t really suitable for the novice bike mechanic.
So, if we assume for a moment that the money isn’t a problem, how much should you spend on your first road bike? On the one hand you could accept that you’re probably going to crash/drop the bike a few times in the first year, you could opt for a cheaper bike to play with so that when you upgrade to a nicer bike in the future you’ll have got all the rookie mistakes out of the way. On the other hand, you may get frustrated with a cheaper bike, realise that to upgrade the groupset costs almost as much as a new bike, and figure you may as well pay the extra £200 at the bike shop for the next groupset up (I’ll explain groupsets soon, I promise). It really is up to you, but the next section on where you money actually goes should help.
Where does your money go?
It’s not just weight that you save when you upgrade, everything about a top end bike is different to a cheaper bike, let’s look at some examples:
There are four main materials used to build bicycle frames, each with their own pros and cons.
“Steel is real” the purists claim, and they’re right. No other bike frame can be repaired with a blowtorch. The versatility of the material makes it very popular with custom frame builders, who can build you a frame bespoke to your measurements. The properties of the material also means it will provide a dampening effect, ironing out some smaller bumps in the road for you, but very few new bikes are made of high quality lightweight steel, and are instead made of heavy, thick tubes which give the material a bad name. One for the connoisseurs more than your garden variety cyclist, but not to be written off either.
Pros: Malleable, comfortable ride, cheap
Cons: Difficult to find a high quality option
This is the most popular material for bikes under the £1000 mark, but is often given a bad name by those who believe carbon is the only way to go. I have always ridden aluminium road bikes, and while I can tell a difference when I throw my leg over my carbon TT frame, it’s far from the heavy and bone shaking riding experience some would have you believe. Aluminium is more durable than carbon fibre, which can be prone to fracturing if it’s hit in the wrong way at the wrong angle, making it the material of choice for many criterium racers where they’ll be looking for a cheaper, more durable frame to throw around corners elbow to elbow with other riders. Cannondale have made a great success of aluminium with their CAAD range, affordable, speedy bikes that look great and handle well.
Pros: Light, responsive, durable
Cons: Slightly harsher ride
“You need to get yourself a carbon bike, it’s what Tour de France riders use” is the advice given to many aspiring road cyclists. Carbon fibre sounds sexy, it’s somewhat mysterious, has connotations with F1 and will feel light as a feather compared to the chopper they used to ride around the local park in their childhood. Many road cyclists will only have ever ridden a carbon fibre bike so the material is accredited with all the benefits that come with upgrading to a road bike. The truth of the matter is that not all carbon fibre is made equal, and a cheap carbon fibre frame is less desirable than a nicely made aluminium frame. That being said, it is probably the ideal material to make bikes out of, providing stiffness while also dampening road vibrations. When you ride a carbon fibre bike it just feels different, it wants to be ridden fast. I made a comment earlier about carbon fibre being more fragile than aluminium, but that’s not to suggest these bikes are made out of sugar glass and should be handled with extreme care, these are durable and well made pieces of kit designed to take knocks from potholes and survive a minor crash. The issues come when you stress the material in an unusual way – bikes are designed to take a lot of punishment vertically. But, I once watched someone’s frame become unrideable after being blown over and landing on its side, hitting the ground horizontally in a way that cracked the material. Even if you are unlucky enough to find a fracture when inspecting your bike, repairing it isn’t as expensive as you may think.
Pros: Light, stiff, yet smooth ride
Cons: Expensive, not as durable as other materials
Arguably the highest quality material out there, this is the one material I have zero experience of riding, as I’ve never met anyone with a titanium frame brave enough to let me ride it! The material is a lot like steel in that it can be used to make very custom frames, making it the material of choice for some boutique brands. The material is very difficult to work with due to the temperatures and environment it is malleable in, but I understand it gives a “unique” ride quality that’s very smooth. It won’t jump out of the blocks like a carbon frame will, but it’s no slouch either.
A groupset refers to all parts of your drivetrain, this is typically the gear shifters, the front and rear mechs, chainrings, cranks, bottom bracket, cassette and brake callipers. The combination of these parts saves a huge amount of weight and also had an effect on how smoothly your bike shifts, how responsive the brakes are e.t.c.
As I alluded to earlier, upgrading your groupset is very expensive, so it’s worth spending a bit more to get the one you want when purchasing the bike. But what’s a good groupset? Here are the most popular Shimano groupsets. I have nothing against SRAM or Campagnolo, but replacement parts can be tricky to find in a pinch and very few bikes are sold with these groupsets as standard.
Found primarily on budget bikes such as those found in Halfords, it’s very basic and the components don’t last long, probably best avoided if you can afford to. It has eight gears which can make it difficult to find the right gear compared to more expensive groupsets.
This is a nine speed groupset aimed at newer cyclists, it can feel a bit clunky and it’s fairly heavy, but does the job reliably.
Now we’re looking at a ten speed groupset, this gives us more flexibility and the gear changes are just that much nicer, to the point that you’d probably notice if you rode both groupsets blindfolded. Please don’t ride bikes blindfolded.
In my humble opinion this is all anyone really needs. It’s light, very responsive and now 11 speed as standard. I don’t buy bikes which have anything less than 105 on them, and I only run Ultegra on my triathlon bike as that was the only option when I bought it. Shimano 105 is an incredible groupset and does everything you could reasonably ask for from a mechanical setup, anything else will make minimal difference.
The only real difference between Ultegra and 105 is the materials used, which means the Shimano Ultegra R8000 is 191g lighter than the Shimano 105 R7000. As the price difference for the new groupsets is the best part of £500, you have to ask yourself how much 200g really matters to you. It does have the option of smaller shifters which could be appealing for those with smaller hands, and it also comes in a Di2 (electronic) format which has some benefits I’ll go into shortly.
This is the kingpin of the groupsets, the absolute top end, have it all version used by professional racers, using the latest technology available. It is significantly more expensive than Ultegra, and offers very little in the way of tangible benefit, providing more of a conversation point than any performance gains. Technology from Dura-Ace tends to trickle down over the years, and as such the current Sora will probably perform better than the Dura-Ace of the mid 90s. For a first road bike, this is probably overkill, if only for the cost of replacing parts that become worn/damaged.
One thing to watch out for is brands adorning their bike with an Ultegra rear mech and Chainset (where the branding is most visible) but using 105 shifters, cassette, front mech e.t.c. as this is a good way to lure customers in. This won’t make much of a difference to your riding, but there will be a sense of being deceived when you find out. A good question to ask is “Does it have full Ultegra?”.
Riding a Dura-Ace and Claris bike back to back you’ll notice a difference, and this is one of the primary reasons you’d want to spend more on a bike, however it’s important to note that no matter how lightweight or responsive a groupset is, it won’t ride up the hills for you. If someone tries to tell you that you’d be able to keep up on the hills if you bought Dura-Ace, they’ve probably got shares in Shimano.
With regards to electronic shifting, this opens up a world of possibilities for us. Electronic shifting uses buttons rather than levers for changing gear, meaning less strength is required to change chainrings (you can laugh now, but after ten hours in the saddle these things matter), as well as requiring much less in the way of maintenance. Rather than having to index gears on a regular basis as the mech gets knocked or the cable stretches over time, you simply fit and forget, making sure to recharge the battery. SRAM Etap allows you to place shifters anywhere on the bike using its wireless system, and the new Dura-Ace allows you to shift all the way through your gears only using the right hand shifter, changing chainring for you automatically. The batteries and junction box can add some extra weight but this is offset somewhat by the loss of gear cables, and I’d go for electronic shifting over mechanical in nearly every scenario. However for your first road bike, it’s probably overkill.
There are currently two braking standards available for road bikes, disc brakes and calliper brakes. I would recommend disc brakes if you are just starting cycling as this is the way the industry is moving and they perform much better in the wet. I won’t go into detail here as I’ve already covered the points in this article: Should you run disc brakes? They do raise the price slightly, but I believe it’s a price worth paying.
It’s not very common for manufacturers to throw in upgraded wheels on bikes, normally they’re pretty cheap and nasty, as wheels are so expensive they bump the price up massively. However once you get to the £2500+ mark bikes may come with some higher end wheels as standard, which help save weight, improve acceleration and last longer thanks to higher quality bearings and a stronger build quality. This isn’t the place to go into the nitty gritty of wheels, but if you can’t see why one bike is a lot more than another with similar specs, check the wheels, these are very expensive to upgrade further down the line.
This is often overlooked in the second hand bike market, the peace of mind that comes with having a warranty. Generally components are covered for a few years, with most manufacturers offering a lifetime warranty on the frame. This means that not only can you ride around safe in the knowledge that financially you’ll be covered if you have an accident, but the bikes are manufactured to a standard where they feel confident that it will not fail on you.
Big brands such as Specialized will provide bikes for multiple teams in the World Tour, have a wide ranging print and web advertising strategy, hold events, run competitions and do everything they can to sell more bikes. The money for this has to come from somewhere, so you can be pretty certain that a portion of any Specialized bike you guy goes towards covering the cost of the Tarmac that Peter Sagan totalled in a group sprint.
Research and Development
As I alluded to when talking about Dura-Ace, when you buy a top of the range product, you’re paying for the R+D that went into the technology involved, not just the materials and manufacturing costs. This is where diminishing returns really kicks in, the more expensive the bike, the larger proportion of the cost went into research and development, for what will likely be a marginal benefit.
To conclude the section on pricing, I don’t believe there’s much point spending over £1500 on a road bike, especially your first. You are of course welcome to spend as much as you like, but don’t expect a £5000 bike to go five times as fast as a £1000 bike.
Geometry and fit
Far more important than brand, price, wheelset, groupset or colour is whether you are comfortable on the bike. Let’s look at some basic concepts.
This is the difference between the saddle height and height of the bars. The higher the drop the more of an aggressive, aerodynamic position you’ll find yourself in, but at the cost of comfort. Drop can be decreased by lowering the saddle or adding spacers to the headset, but most road bikes will have at least 2CM of drop, as otherwise you’ll be sitting bolt upright. There’s nothing wrong with this if you have back pain or are incredibly nervous, but you’ll get much more out of your cycling if you start to increase the drop. Drop can be increased by raising the saddle or removing spacers on the headset, but I recommend you try this slowly rather than jumping from 2CM right up to 10CM, anything in double digits is extremely aggressive and unlikely to be comfortable for longer rides. The drop is very flexible and should not usually determine which bike you buy, but it’s worth checking how many spacers are available at the front of the bike, as you may not be able to get the handlebars as high as you like on some of the more aggressive models out there.
The reach quite simply represents how long the bike is, measured from the saddle to the stem by bike fitters, however bike manufacturers tend to measure from an imaginary line extending up from the bottom bracket across to the headset. As you would expect, more aggressive bikes have a longer reach, with more relaxed bikes having a shorter reach which doesn’t require as much flexibility to maintain. Reach can be increased or shortened by swapping out the stem, however this will also have effect on the handling, which may be unwanted. Having a longer stem may make it feel like you’re riding a boat, where a short stem can result in some unwanted oversteer.
The stack height is measured from the bottom bracket to the top tube, the tube which sits between your legs. A stack height which is too low will make it a very ungainly experience riding the bike while a stack height which is too high will make it incredibly difficult to get an effective, comfortable saddle height as well as making mounting/dismounting an extreme sport. You should expect to lean the bike slightly to the side to mount/dismount for an effective road riding position, only bringing it completely upright when you push off and mount the saddle.
This is simply the length of a bike, but has a noticeable effect on handling. A bike with a longer wheelbase will feel more stable but sloppier in the corners, while a bike with a short wheelbase will feel like it’s on rails in the corners, at the tradeoff of feeling twitchier. Endurance and TT bikes will normally have longer wheelbases for stability, with performance bikes being slightly shorter making them better suited to twisting switchbacks or a criterium circuit. The differences can be very small here, so don’t expect to be able to spot them with the naked eye.
Shape of saddle
Moving away from the bike itself slightly here, the type of saddle you’re running is second in importance only to the saddle height when it comes to your comfort on the bike. We all have soft tissue down there which doesn’t like to be squished, and we all have sit bones which are different widths and shapes, choosing the right saddle is essential for all day comfort on the bike, and I’m 95% sure that the saddle that comes with your bike will be wrong for you. Look for a saddle with a cutout in the middle (very few individuals suit saddles without) which offers a 30 day exchange programme, where you can try the saddle for 30 days and exchange it for another from the same manufacturer if it’s not working for you. Unfortunately a saddle can feel great when you try it at the shop, only to leave you in agony after two hours of riding. Please don’t be tempted by the big, cushioned saddles, they may be comfortable for nipping down the shops, but they will be uncomfortable on longer rides for the same reason you’ll start shifting around if sat in a big, soft chair for too long. More minimal saddles are more comfortable for long rides for the same reason you can spend all night perched on a bar stool with minimal discomfort. The best way to find the right saddle for you is to have a bike fit.
The fore/aft of the saddle represents how far the saddle is behind or in front of the bottom bracket. Getting this nailed in can be notoriously difficult, but those planning to use clip on aero bars will probably need to move their saddle slightly forwards to accommodate for the more forward position.
This is easily solved with an Allen key and a spirit level so isn’t a factor when looking at bikes, but it’s something that can ruin cycling for many if they hit a pothole and don’t realise their saddle has slipped forward slightly. Saddles should by and large be completely level, there are only a handful of situations where a couple of degrees of tilt back or forth may prove to be advantageous, but this is for a bike fitter to recommend on. If you’re suffering with saddle discomfort, whip out a spirit level and make sure it’s dead level.
How wide your handlebars are will have an effect on both your comfort and the handling of the bike. As you can probably guess, narrower bars will result in a twitchier ride, but keeping your shoulders narrow also provide you with a slight aerodynamic benefit. Wider handlebars will provide you with more stability, but at the cost of some top end speed. What’s more important than aerodynamics or handling is comfort, as you want to avoid any back or shoulder pain from riding bars that are too narrow or wide. Rather than requiring a different bike, this is simply a case of swapping out handlebars, but it’s worth looking into this when you purchase your bike as you may be able to sweet talk the bike shop into swapping the handlebars out for you if it secures them a sale.
Riding on the drops can be intimidating for many, lowering your body position even further. The reason many riders find it difficult to ride the drops is that they don’t have the right handlebars, and can’t reach the gears or brakes. You may need help from your bike shop or bike fitter to get the right bars for you, but either way you’ll probably have to look at different manufacturers to find a shape that works for you. It may upset some riders to have a pair of Pro handlebars on their Specialized bike, but comfort and fit really are king, and these things are best sorted out when purchasing the bike and you can sell on the original bars as new.
Nothing will affect your riding enjoyment as much as your saddle height. Too high and your hips will rock from side as you strive for each pedal stroke, feeling unsteady and out of control; while a saddle height which is too low will restrict your ability to put out power and risk knee injury. Even a couple of millimetres can make a difference over long distances. Forget any methods you dad may have taught you about having one foot on the floor, you want to set your saddle height so your knees are just short of locking out at the bottom of the pedal stroke. The best way to get your saddle height spot on is to, you guessed it, get a bike fit. If you live in the London area, we can provide you with a bike fit and advise on the best bike for you to buy, details here.
You can use these measurements to compare your current bike (if applicable) to the bike you’re looking at purchasing. If your current bike has a stack height of 45CM which you find a real struggle to throw your leg over, then you’ll be looking at a size where this is lower. Some websites will ask for your height and inseam measurement (from the floor up to your privates) recommending a size for you based on this, but the best way to find your right size is to throw your leg over the bike itself. Most shops don’t have every bike in every size ready for you to go and try, so if you know there’s a bike you’re dying to get your hands on, phone them up ahead of time, and they’ll build it up for you to come in and try, normally within a few days.
A chap I used to work with tried to pilot a “fit first, but second” movement which seems ludicrous at first, paying for a bike fit before you know which bike you’ll be buying, but where all the charts told me I’d be looking at a 51CM Cervelo P3, he got me on the jig and discovered that while I could fit on a 51, the saddle would be super high, I may have to swap the stem, and it would look pretty ungainly, ordering me a 54CM instead. If you’re looking at spending serious money on a bike, you should consider this as an option.
Apologies if I threw a bit too much bike jargon around there, but these are the biggest factors in bike fit and this is overlooked by many buying their first bike, resulting in discomfort, injury, and just not getting the most out of their cycling.
Choosing the right bike for you
By this point I hope you have a rough idea of what you’re looking to buy, you may decide that you’re going to go for the cheapest frame you can find, or you may be leaning towards an endurance bike, with a 105 groupset and a very relaxed geometry for around the £1500 mark. Alternatively you may be targeting city centre events looking for a top of the range road aero frame with electronic shifting on it where money isn’t a problem. Either way you’re now faced with the question of which bike to order. When visiting a specialist this choice can be overwhelming, should you go for the Cannondale? The Specialised? The Giant? A few factors to consider:
Some cyclists are adamant that all frames are made in the same factory in Taiwan, badged up with different logos and sold as individual bikes. While this is a gross over-exaggeration, the truth is that there isn’t nearly as much difference between brands as you may be lead to think, especially towards the cheaper end of their range. What does make a big difference though is the customer service and after sales support. I don’t want to land myself in hot water here, but while some brands are known for going out of their way to replace damaged components with minimal fuss, other brands are known for dragging customers through a soul destroying warranty process where they have to pay for their bike to be shipped to a factory in Europe, examined at some point in the next six weeks, where they will most likely declare it wasn’t their responsibility and charge you to courier you broken bike back to you.
I would think no less of someone if they told me the reason they went for the Trek Domane rather than the Specialized Roubaix because they preferred the colour. You’re going to be spending a lot of money on your bike (even £500 isn’t chicken feed), you want your bike to sit in your hallway begging to be ridden. Your new steed needs to excite you and going for an ugly colour scheme because the salesperson told you it had slightly stiffer cranks than the bike that really spoke to you doesn’t set you up for several years of two wheeled bliss together. Sometimes the go faster stripes are the only thing that get you out the door on an overcast, damp morning.
If there are two very similar bikes you’re considering, one is full price and one is 20% off, it’s a bit of a no brainer. Your friends may swear by their Canyon, Trek or Binachi, but as we’ve already discussed, the manufacturer of the frame makes very little difference most of the time so as long as the specs are similar, save yourself a bit of cash and go for the discounted bike.
Towards the end of the bike retail year (late summer/autumn) you can get some fantastic deals on bikes, but popular sizes such as 54cm and 56cm may be difficult to get hold of. If you are in love with a bike but it’s got a six week lead time, where a very similar model is making eyes at you from across the showroom floor, you have to ask yourself how much you prefer the other bike, and how much riding you’d miss out on. If you have an event in six months, six weeks is a good chunk of training you’ll miss out on, especially as there’s always a chance they’ll come back and tell you they couldn’t get hold of it after all. These are all factors you have to take into account based on your individual situation.
Budgeting for extras
Many would be cyclists walk into their local bike shop with £1500 of savings and their eye on a new bike they’ve been courting through the window for a few months. They get measured up, pick out their colour, and head to the bike shop for the big day when they ride their dream bike home.
Shop owner: “Which pedals would you like?”
Customer: “What do you mean?”
SO: “The bike doesn’t come with pedals, which would you like?”
C: “What kind of £1500 bike doesn’t come with pedals?”
SO: “Pedals are very individual, so manufacturers don’t ship them with pedals, as most riders will swap them out to their preferred standard”
C: “How individual can pedals be?”
SO: “Well, you have SPD, SPD-SL, Look Keo, Time, Speedplay…”
C: “Yes, I get the picture, which is the cheapest?”
SO: “We have some Shimano SPD pedals for £30”
C: “That’ll do”
SO: “Great, the shoes are over here”
SO: “Yes, the shoes which clip into the pedals”
C: “Clip in?”
SO: Yes, the shoes clip into the pedals so you’re attached to the bike, improves acceleration and efficiency” C: “Blimey, how much are the shoes?”
SO: “Well, they start at £70, shall we try some on?”
This is a familiar conversation for many, and the customer who has stringently saved up (and told their partner) they’d be spending £1500 on a road bike is now going home at least another £100 lighter. Once they’ve picked the shoes, they will be advised to look at other items he’ll have a difficult time without. Let’s look at a full list of items a new cyclist needs to budget for:
This is an essential for any riding except the most leisurely cycle path rider in my opinion, all helmets are made to the same safety standard (with the exclusion of MIPS systems) so don’t need you have to spend a fortune to stay safe. More expensive helmets will be lighter and more ventilated, perhaps more aerodynamic, but you don’t need to spend more than £50 for a comfortable lid. Try a few on until you find one that sits securely.
Of all the different standards I recommend either Shimano SPD-SL or Look as they use the three bolt system found on the majority of cycle shoes. Shimano SPD is cheaper and less obstructive when walking around so may appeal to touring cyclists or off road riders, but it can be hard to find shoes which fit you as the range is a lot more restrictive. Spending more than £50 gets you carbon fibre pedals which get lighter and include better quality bearings, but there are better places to spend your money in all honesty so keep it cheap for now.
Shoes generally start at the £70 mark and need to fit your foot. As in, they REALLY need to fit your foot. A lot of cycling shoes come up very narrow, some very long, so try on lots of brands. They should hug your foot very nicely with a little space in the toe box for the foot to swell in the heat.
The tyres on your new bike are awful. I can say that with relative confidence unless you are spending over £2000 on your bike. High performance tyres provide you with extra puncture protection, reduced rolling resistance and vastly improved grip. Nobody has ever sat at the side of the road grappling with a puncture repair kit in the freezing rain or found themselves in the back of an ambulance with a broken collarbone really smug that they saved £60 on a quality set of tyres. Find more information on the right tyres for you here
Saddle bag and basic tools: £40
You’ll want a saddle bag to sit behind your seat post with enough supplies to get you out of trouble. I recommend a multi tool (including chain tool), spare chain link, spare inner tube, tyre levers, puncture repair patches and mini pump or C02 canisters. Learn how to fix a puncture on YouTube and you’ll be able to head out feeling a lot more self sufficient.
I recommend running a pair of small flashing lights during the day, and if you’ll be cycling in the half light or darkness, a second more powerful pair you can switch on when visibility starts to drop. When I started cycling lights were big and heavy, chewing through a small fortune’s worth of batteries on the way home from my friend’s house, but today they’re light, compact and for the most part USB rechargeable. It’s a legal requirement in the UK to run lights after sunset so don’t get caught out, or even worse end up under the wheels of someone’s car. For now a small set of flashers will do you just fine.
Bottle cage and bottle £20
This doesn’t need to be fancy, just a way to transport water around as cycling is thirsty work. Some riders opt for a rucksack with a camelback which is better than nothing, but the rucksack will leave you sweating heavily and place extra stress on your shoulders.
Cleaning products and lubricants £30
A bicycle that is neglected will rust, seize up, make a racket when riding and eventually break. Keeping your bike clean and lubricated is incredibly important. You’ll need some bike cleaner, degreaser, sponges, brushes and a bottle of lubricant as a minimum.
Cycling shorts and jersey £100
Spending prolonged time on your bike without padded shorts will be… uncomfortable. Even with the shorts it takes time to build up a bit of resilience down there so these are not a purchase you will regret. A jersey is very useful for transporting essentials in the back pockets (food, pump, phone e.t.c.)
Rain cape: £50
It will rain when you’re cycling, whether it’s forecast or not, and having a small packaway waterproof in your pocket will have you covered in these situations.
Arm and leg warmers: £40
Not 80s fashion accessories, these are arm and leg sleeves that keep you warm on chilly mornings or when the sun sets. Cheaper than buying a long sleeved jersey or tights, and more flexible as can be removed when the sun comes out. If you’re riding in properly cold weather you’ll want windproof clothing to keep the wind off your chest and tights for maximum warmth, but as not many people take up cycling in the dead of winter (chapeau if you are!), arm and leg warmers go a long way.
You’ll want some glasses to keep the sun out of your eyes on bright days as well as to protect you from small stones and insects. There are options for persimmon lenses to brighten up an overcast day and clear lenses for night riding, or even photochromic lenses that adjust to conditions.
If we forego the recommended section, we’re looking at £340 for what are pretty essential purchases, and closer to £500 when we include the clothing we need to ride in comfort. This isn’t (normally) a salesperson trying to take you for a ride, they just want to make sure you can really enjoy the sport. If you’re really on a budget or looking to spread the cost you could pick up some flat pedals now and look into the shoes later, but a pair of flat pedals can be £20 in themselves, so if you have the money in your account it’s probably better to do it right first time.
Where to buy the bike
One of the biggest factors to consider is where you buy your bike from. If you head somewhere where cycling isn’t the sole purpose of the business, the salesperson may have gone on a one day course on bike sales if you’re lucky, and their experience of riding bikes may extend to a visit to Center Parks where they pootled around a flat trail on mountain bikes. I really wouldn’t recommend going to one of these shops unless you take a friend who knows exactly what they’re looking for, as you could end up spending a lot of money on something completely unsuitable.
Next on the pecking order is your cycling specific retailer, where they have a broader range of bikes and will go out of their way to order in the right bike in the right size for you, but might also be inclined to sell you a bike in the wrong size to get it off the shop floor. I bought my first bike from one of these, and the sizing process involved an argument between the manager and one of his staff over which size I should take. These outlets are well established enough to offer a reasonable level of advice, but too big to be flexible or guarantee a good level of service across their stores.
Finally you have your specialist retailers, the independent bike shops or very exclusive chains. I really recommend you shop here where possible for a number of reasons. Firstly, many are struggling to make ends meet and these shops provide an important role in our communities. If you need to pick something up quickly, the chances are your local bike shop is closer than the closest retail giant in an industrial estate but they can’t rely on sales of inner tubes and lubricants alone. They’re also great fountains of knowledge as the staff will tend to be experienced passionate cyclists who can help you make the right decisions, although this can come at a premium as they won’t always be as competitive as larger retail outlets having comparatively larger overheads for the volume they sell. However these are also the retailers most likely to swap the stem/handlebars for free, and fix the bike for free or a reduced rate if you take it back to them with an issue. That being said, some local bike shops are run by misogynistic middle aged men who look down on newcomers, or are so inflexible that they probably deserve to go out of business, but the quality local bike shop is an asset to both the sport and the community, deserving of our financial support.
I’m writing this in what I hope is the second half of the Covid-19 pandemic, and it is difficult to buy bikes from bricks and mortar establishments currently. Buying online isn’t the sin that some would have you believe it to be, however you run the risk of getting completely the wrong bike, in a colour that looks different in the flesh, which you’re not the right size for at all. If you’re planning to buy a bike online and use a local bike shop as a showroom, please don’t waste the salesperson’s time by playing a game of 99 questions.
I know that’s quite a lot to take in, but I hope it’s given you an insight into just how much thought needs to go into buying the right bike. To conclude, here are the biggest takeaway points:
A good quality aluminium or steel bike is better than a cheap carbon frame
Spending more money won’t make you quantifiably faster
Budget for accessories
Get a bike fit
Buy the bike which speaks to you
Bikes have very different geometries
Make sure you’re buying a road bike
Shop at a store where staff can help you make informed decisions
Remember to buy pedals
Upgrade your tyres
I hope this has helped inform you of the common pitfalls that come with buying a bike. Once you have your bike and your event booked, why not check out our training plans?