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
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.
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?
Are you struggling to complete workouts? Has it been suggested you may have a vanity FTP? Confused as to what this may mean? I’ll try to explain in this article what a vanity FTP is and what you can do about it. Firstly we need to look at what Functional Threshold Power (FTP) is, or more importantly, what it isn’t. FTP is not (always):
The highest power you can sustain for 60 minutes
95% of your best 20 minute power
Your aerobic threshold
Your anaerobic threshold
The definition of FTP that most coaches and sports scientists now use is:
“The highest power that a rider can maintain in a quasi-steady state without fatiguing for approximately one hour” – Andrew Coggan
That’s quite a mouthful, so let’s have a look at it visually on a chart created using WKO5 from two athletes:
What you’re looking at is each rider’s power duration curve for the last 90 days. Without going into the details right now, you have time on the X axis and watts on the Y axis, so you can see that both riders can hold higher power over shorter durations, and the power they maintain drops over time, as you’d expect! The yellow line shows personal bests for each timeframe and the red line joins the dots to create a mathematical model that is used to calculate modelled FTP, or mFTP, which is denoted as the bottom dotted line.
Between around 10 minutes and 60 minutes (depending on the rider) the line starts to level off, this is where we find your FTP, the maximum power you can hold in a quasi-steady state without fatiguing for around an hour.
Rider A has an FTP of 223W with a TTE of 1:02:22, and rider B has an FTP of 215W with a TTE of 32:21. Most riders will have a TTE between 30 minutes and 70 minutes, which gives us an insight into how well trained an athlete is at holding high power. As a coach looking at each of these athletes I can work out how to develop each athlete and improve their training. Athlete A needs to lift his chart upwards, he’s unlikely to get much benefit from trying to increase TTE at this point, so we’ll look to increase his power over shorter durations such as 20-30 minutes, then when he increases his FTP significantly we could turn our attention to increasing TTE again. Athlete B however would benefit from extending the time he can hold his FTP for by spending extended periods at higher intensity (tempo, sweetspot) allowing him to hold 215W for longer, vastly improving his performance over an event such as an Olympic triathlon or standard duathlon.
Now we understand what FTP is, we can start talking about vanity FTP. As a coach I want my athletes to have the highest FTP possible, and every athlete wants to have the highest FTP possible, however this is where a lot of athletes get into trouble, and find themselves training to a vanity FTP, which is an overinflated estimation of what they’re capable of, let’s have a look at this and why it happens.
One of the many benefits of using WKO5 is it estimates the effect the anaerobic system is having on your efforts. FTP is an aerobic effort, as is everything up to around 120% of FTP (depending on the athlete), after which we start working anaerobically. This is where our muscles are demanding oxygen faster than our body can provide it, and we start to create an oxygen debt. This is our body’s fight or flight system and allows us to put in a huge effort up a short hill or sprint for a finish line, but leaves us gasping for air afterwards. As triathletes this is of limited use to us during most events as we opt for a steady, smooth application of power, but we can’t ignore it and the effect it has on our training. This chart for athlete B looks at the contribution the aerobic and anaerobic system makes to their effort.
The blue shaded area represents the contribution of the anaerobic system to the effort, the green represents the contribution of the aerobic system to the effort. As you can see, up to the 50 second mark the majority of energy being used to fuel his effort is anaerobic, beyond 50 seconds the aerobic system takes over pretty quickly, although the anaerobic system still makes a small, yes statistically important contribution beyond this point.
Using 95% of your average power from the standard 20 minute test is designed to account for the contribution made by your anaerobic system. This athlete however isn’t an especially gifted sprinter so at 20 minutes, only 3.3% of his energy is coming from his anaerobic system. Using the standard 95% equation he would only get an FTP of 210W, the 5W he’s lost here could be worth a lot of time over an Ironman and result in them wasting time with ineffective training.
On the other hand you could have a very talented sprinter, who has either come from a power lifting background or is simply blessed with a high number of fast twitch muscle fibres genetically. In this situation, they could well generate 10% of their 20 minute power anaerobically. Let’s say they put in 300W during their 20 minute test. As 10% of their power was generated anaerobically their FTP should be 270W, but using the median figure of 5%, they would get an FTP of 285W. They’d no doubt be able to smash short, hard workouts with their strong anaerobic system, but ask them to spend prolonged time at the high end of their aerobic zones and they’ll really struggle. This is because their FTP is too high, which can result in them working in zone 2 when they should be in zone 1, zone 3 when they should be in zone 2, e.t.c.
Many athletes out there may not have such a problem with this, they think that if they train at an FTP which is higher than their ability level, they’ll get fitter sooner. This is possible, but it’s far more possible they’ll burn out after several days of struggling through easy workouts and failing difficult ones, feeling demotivated and no doubt blaming the training plan for being too hard, especially if they’re following a standalone training plan where a coach can’t spot these trends and the athlete can’t feed back on how hard they’re working.
The bigger issue however is race planning, the vast majority of age group athletes will race to a set intensity factor, or IF. For an Olympic distance this may be 0.9, for a 70.3 this may be 0.8, for an Ironman this may be 0.75, this helps ensure that we get the most out of our bike leg, without burning our legs out ahead of the run. This is all based on the assumption that your FTP is accurate. If you are working to a vanity FTP you’re not willing to lower, you could find yourself riding an Ironman at 80% of your FTP instead of 75%, which is unlikely to end well for you, perhaps even resulting in a DNF. This is all because your FTP is based on the assumption that the anaerobic contribution to your 20 minute effort will be available to you indefinitely.
To understand why this is a problem, think of a racing driver who runs nitrous oxide in his car. By flicking a switch on his gearstick he can get a short, high powered, likely illegal injection of speed, but he only has enough for a 30 second boost. He could post a 1:45 minute lap when using his nitrous oxide, and 1:50 without using his nitrous oxide. If he was pacing a 12 hour endurance race he would be a fool to base his fuelling strategy on the lap time of 1:45, as this is only available to him once. For this same reason, a cyclist would be foolish to base his pacing strategy for a long event based on a figure which don’t account for the anaerobic contribution to their FTP.
This isn’t a perfect metaphor as cyclists will recharge their anaerobic battery slowly, and sometimes you need to dip into that reserve on a steep hill, but it should help you understand the dangers of having an FTP that’s not actually useful to train to or pace with.
Now that you understand why we need to account for this anaerobic contribution we need to understand how to account for it within our FTP. The best way to do this is using modelling software such as WKO5 (my preference), Xert or Golden Cheetah, but these can be truly overwhelming for the novice cyclist. You could use the Suffertest’s 4DP which tests you over 15 seconds, 1 minute, 5 minutes and 20 minutes back to back, to give you a figure which accounts for anaerobic contribution, but these aren’t ideal as you’ll already be cooked by the time you start your 20 minute effort. Finally, if you want to keep it as simply as possible, you can aim to empty your anaerobic tank by doing a five minute all out effort, followed by a few minutes rest, before you start your 20 minute test, of which you can use 100% of the average 20 minute power.
If this is all sounds a bit too complicated but you struggle to complete workouts, try reducing your FTP by 2-3%, a vanity FTP is rarely a conscious decision by an athlete, rather an overestimation by a piece of software or algorithm, and an athlete who isn’t willing to accept the figure may not be accurate.
FTP Doesn’t Win Races
If you’re still refusing to reconsider your inflated FTP, let’s look at why FTP isn’t the be all and end all of racing success.
You would be forgiven for looking at the podium of a time trial or the top three of the bike leg of a triathlon and thinking the rider in first had the highest FTP, followed by the rider in second place with the second highest FTP and so on down the positions.
However there are dozens of other factors which can affect the results of an event, the athlete’s bike, aerodynamics, W/KG, clothing, bike handling skills, start time, V02 max, time to exhaustion, ability to resist fatigue, nutrition, hydration, weight, these are all factors which will affect their finishing position.
Let’s return to athlete A and athlete B from earlier. Athlete A has an FTP of 223W with a TTE of 1:02:22, and athlete B has an FTP of 215W with a TTE of 32:21. They both took part in an 20K time trial yesterday on the same course pancake flat course on Zwift (removing a number of the variables), so who do you think won?. It would probably surprise you if I told you it was athlete B, who averaged 218W for a time of 29:29, while athlete A averaged 210W for a time of 34:16. Let’s start by expanding on the quantitive data:
V02 Max: 38
W/KG at FTP: 2.4
CTL on day of TT: 55
V02 Max: 61
W/KG at FTP: 3.8
CTL on day of TT: 33
Ultimately athlete B set the faster time because he’s won club championship titles, finished over 100 events, is an Ironman finisher and has been training for eight years where athlete A is training for his first 70.3 distance event. There are dozens, if not hundreds of factors which influence your performance, your FTP does not determine your value as an athlete.
I hope this has illustrated to you that higher FTPs do not win races, and that it is instead a combination of many factors.
To get the most out of your training, you have to be honest with yourself about your ability. Training to an accurate FTP will allow you to really develop as a rider, improving all areas of your fitness quicker, resulting in faster times.
If you would like more help with your FTP, E-mail Simon@phazontriathlon.com for a coaching consultation session where we can analyse your data, ask you to perform additional tests where required, then provide you with a rider profile, along with workouts designed to improve your riding.
As someone once said to me, “Training for a sprint is a hobby, training for an Ironman is a lifestyle”, something many of us can relate to. You likely started out at sprint and Olympic distance where a long ride was three hours and you rarely ran for longer than an hour. However when taking on an Ironman, this just won’t cut it, and your longer workouts tend to dominate the day once you include the preparation, execution, recovery, cleaning/washing and the obligatory nap afterwards.
All of this can take a strain on your relationships, which can leave your other half feeling neglected and overwhelmed with jobs such as looking after kids and food shopping which you can’t help with while you’re out putting in the miles. Training for an event like an Ironman will likely change the dynamic of your relationship, but there are some simple steps you can take to stop it being a change for the worse.
Choose your moment
If you’re moving house, expecting a new arrival, your workplace have announced redundancies or a family member is unwell, you have to ask yourself whether this is really the best time to engage in an expensive and time consuming challenge such as an Ironman. When you get closer to the race you may be out of the house for six hours at a time on your long ride, you may find yourself stressed if things aren’t going to plan and the physical exhaustion you’ll experience towards the end of the hard weeks can make the best of us come across as a bit short tempered and surly. The Ironman distance isn’t going anywhere, so don’t feel you have to cram it into an already stressful period in your life.
Make time for them
If you love someone the greatest gift you can give them is your presence, just to be around, even if it’s just sitting on the sofa watching a film together. Ironman training will reduce the time you can spend together, and your other half may take this personally if they believe you are growing tired or bored of their company. Even if you’re not able to spend as much time together as previously, making an effort to put time aside for them, and following up on this goes a long way. If you can’t spend an evening sat on the sofa browsing Netflix for five hours together, take them out to dinner for a couple of hours to make them feel special.
Involve them in the process
If your partner is less than keen on your Ironman habit the best way you can turn it around is to involve them so they feel some ownership over the process. This doesn’t mean forcing them to train with you, but it can be something as simple as asking them to hold you accountable to your training plan, asking them which event you should enter or combining your training/racing with a family holiday. If your partner is a stickler for organisation, sharing your precise schedule with them, or inputting the times you plan to train into a shared calendar can help ease any anxieties about you disappearing at short notice.
Keep the sex life going
If you’ve already spent six hours sweating away on the bike in the morning, the thought of spending more time getting sweaty between the sheets can be less than appealing, especially for male athletes as prolonged aerobic exercise decreases levels of testosterone. While every couple has their own preferences on how regularly fornication should occur, it’s important not to let this slide too much when you start training. Your intimate sessions may be shorter than normal and you may have to adapt if you’re feeling truly exhausted, but leaving your partner to their own devices for several weeks or even months because you deem your training to be more important is unlikely to go down well.
Your training may mean the world to you at this point in time, but the saying goes that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. If you duck out of seeing your in laws for the sake of a big swim session or refuse to spend time with your sick children because you’re afraid you’ll catch a bug that will stop you training this can add up over time. No single session in your training plan will make or break your race, but the anxiety and stress of relationship problems that stem from being inflexible and selfish will have a far greater effect on your performance as not only will you struggle to keep a clear mind, those around you may remove their support for your quest and that run down the finishing chute will feel very lonely.
Show them the Strava file from your run, show them the photo you and your friends took together at the top of the climb, maybe let them track you while you ride/run for safety purposes (most devices allow this), and just generally keep them up to date with what you’re doing. This will help ease any anxieties about where you’re spending your time and who you’re spending it with.
Pick up the slack on your rest day
Most athletes should be taking one day completely off a week. If you have a young family you should see this as an opportunity to pull your weight and pick up the slack; looking after your children to allow your partner some time to to socialise, relax or exercise themselves. Even if you don’t have children, this is a good opportunity to clean the bathroom, mow the lawn, do the dishes, fold the laundry, all jobs which you’ve probably let slide in favour of ploughing up and down the pool. This gives you the double header of a grateful spouse and a clean, organised environment to train and live in.
Look into home training solutions
In this day and age there are several solutions for training indoors; treadmills for running, smart trainers for cycling and endless pools for swimming. While some of these are more affordable than others, something affordable like a turbo trainer not only allows you to work in a very efficient way, it also allows you to be in the house waiting for that parcel, keeping an eye on the kids or allowing you to stay on standby if your other half is in bed feeling unwell. It’s often preferable to train outside, but sometimes this is unrealistic, and it’s better to take your ride/run indoors than to miss a session.
Go easy on the credit card
Yes, triathlon is an expensive sport, there’s no getting around that, but you really don’t need to spend £100 on titanium skewers, £700 on a wetsuit, £10,000 on a bike or £70 on a carbon fibre bottle cage. We all like toys, but there comes a point where you have to put the family budget first. It’s only a hobby at the end of the day and most of the equipment won’t actually make you that much faster. If you’re lucky enough to be in a position where you’re able to splash some cash, don’t be surprised if your other half wants a new set of golf clubs, a weekend skiing, or for you to finally get round to replacing the dated three piece suite.
If you spent more on your new bike than you said you would, fess up. If you’re going to be out for seven hours then don’t tell them you’ll be back for lunch. If you know you’ll be exhausted after your long run, don’t make plans you know you’ll probably have to cancel when you get home and collapse onto the sofa. Honesty is the cornerstone of any relationship and being flexible with the truth or hiding receipts from them is a ticking time bomb waiting to go off.
Talk problems over
If you can tell there’s a sense of resentment growing at the time/money you’re investing, rather than ignoring it, ask them what you can do to make things work better. This also gives you a chance to explain why you’re disappearing for six hours every Sunday (You need to get your long rides in to boost your aerobic capacity as part of your base training, these rides will become less frequent in the build phase which starts next month). If your partner vocalises concerns about how much you’re spending, explain your rationale behind your decisions and talk them through any more expenses that are due before the big day. By explaining the rationale behind your decisions you can help them understand why you’re making the decisions you are, and that there’s no ulterior motives.
Successful relationships are all about give and take, and while training for an Ironman there’s a good chance you’ll be taking a lot more than you’re giving; making a few adjustments to time management and how you go about your training can help prevent any conflict.
I always take my client’s family life into account when setting training, arranging days off and hard workouts on days that suits them best. If you’re struggling to balance training and family life, head to our apply page to find out how we can help you successfully train for your event while keeping everyone on side.
When I first started working with Naval in the early summer he had two middle distance events booked, the Owler which he wanted to use as a sighter, and Challenge Almere which he wanted to use for a big performance. Luckily I had already known him for a couple of years by this point through the club, so knew a lot about him and his training from day one.
We changed his training quite significantly, not so much the number of sessions but the length of them and the content. He is an incredibly strong cyclist and is one of the few people who can hold my heels during a hill session, but this doesn’t translate into a strong half marathon after you’ve already been racing for around three and a half hours by the time you put your running shoes on. He was told to either sit in the wheels on group rides or keep his heart rate below zone 4 when on the front. By spending less energy showboating on the hills and sprinting allowed him to both maximise the aerobic benefit of these sessions, run well off the bike when he got home and keep training well in the first half of the week rather than spend the time recovering from a very hard ride. We also changed the majority of his run training from intervals to longer runs, as with a month to go he hadn’t run much over 12K before.
We only had a few weeks to prepare for the Owler, so when he lined up we hadn’t got close enough to 21KM in training as I would have liked, but he pulled it off and managed an impressive 1:50 run split off the back of a 2:51 ride. With some speed work and tempo runs we could get that run split down to 1:40, and hit the bike harder, taking 15-20 minutes off in the two months we had wasn’t out of the question.
Then a couple of weeks later I got a call from Naval. Instead of beating his PB in Almere, he wanted to step up to the full distance.
He explained that he was unsure if he’d have as much time to train next year due to other commitments, and worried that this may be his best chance of completing the distance, a long term ambition of his. While I always do my best to help people achieve the goals they come to me with rather than tell them what they can and can’t do, this was a big ask.
I decided to look at the facts, for a start the swim would be manageable. He’d completed Ride London in well under 6 hours, and had ridden the hilly 200KM Ditchling Devil audax, so 180KM of riding on flat roads were unlikely to cause him a problem. Using the conservative estimate of 90 minutes for the swim and 7 hours for the bike, this gave us around 7 hours to run/walk 40KM. I’ve learned to never take completing the run course for granted as cramps, digestive issues or sheer exhaustion can leave someone weaving across the road, but I thought he could do it.
Naval really wanted to step up the running distances which is understandable, but as he has a history of running injury, increasing the distance dramatically would most likely result in injury and crush his dreams, although we did need to increase the run volume to give him his best chance of success. I decided the best way to do this was to include two middle distance runs during the week to increase his weekly volume rather than jump straight up to 30KM long runs. The marathon was going to be brutal, we both acknowledged that, but there wasn’t a huge amount we could do otherwise. It seemed a risk worth taking
He pulled it out of the bag, finishing in a highly impressive 12 hours and 53 minutes. Coaching isn’t a silver bullet, but this is a perfect example of how good communication and thinking outside of the box can create results.
Aerobic and anaerobic are two words that many in the endurance coaching world including myself bound around on a daily basis, yet for the aspiring triathlete these can cause confusion at first.
The terms refer to how the body generates energy, imagine a six year old at sports day, belting across the school field towards the finishing line. When they finish their run they will likely be breathing heavily, exhausted from the 25M sprint they have just completed. When they move into secondary school and start running the 1500 on the track and cross country they soon realise something, if they want to run longer distances they have to slow down.
Once they run longer distances at a lower intensities they are not nearly as out of breath at the end of the effort. They may be exhausted and collapse in a heap with sore legs and no energy left, but their lungs will not burn in the same way as before, they will not be recovering from what is known as an oxygen debt.
The reason you experience an oxygen debt after short efforts is due to the body relying primarily on its anaerobic system heavily for short, hard efforts, this is where your body creates energy without oxygen. I won’t go into the science of how it works here, but what you need to know is that the anaerobic system can only function for around 2 minutes before the athlete accumulates a large oxygen debt and has to slow dramatically, this is our fight or flight reaction that allows us to escape from danger. Many predators in the animal kingdom rely on their anaerobic system heavily as they sprint after prey, if the gazelle manages to slip from the cheetahs grasp or zig zag enough to tire the cheetah, it can avoid becoming lunch as the cheetah has created an enormous oxygen debt it must recover from, akin to the six year old who has sprinted full pelt over a short distance and has nothing left at the end.
On the other side of the equation we have aerobic fitness, this is energy created using oxygen. This is much more efficient and is one of the leading reasons for our dominance as a species, where our prey relied predominantly on their anaerobic system to escape danger, we were able to keep them in sight and slowly run them into exhaustion as they were unable to hold the pace that we were over longer distances.
As triathletes we are focused almost entirely upon the aerobic system, as it is very rare that we will be putting the hammer down and become predominantly anaerobic when racing even a sprint distance triathlon as we will need time to recover from this effort. The exception to this is in draft legal triathlon where you may launch an attack off the front of the pack to try to bridge to the next group, which upon joining you will be able to sit in the wheels of for a minute or so while your body recovers from the oxygen debt.
This is the reason that so much triathlon training is done at an “all day” pace, to ensure we are building and strengthening our aerobic system and not our anaerobic system. The mistake that many athletes make is doing all of their training way too fast and making very little headway on the aerobic development side of things. You may be able to run a very quick 5K, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into a great marathon experience, I can vouch for that one personally!
This is where things get confusing, I am a fairly gifted anaerobic athlete, I can push myself harder and go deeper than many others over shorter periods, but tend to suffer over especially long efforts. Normally when I mention that I have a strong anaerobic system and that 5K is my best distance to an athlete a metaphorical finger is waved in my face. “Aha! But a 5K is over 2 minutes, so it’s not an anaerobic effort”. This is of course true, but what people don’t always realise is that your body is never generating energy on a 100% aerobic or anaerobic basis. If that were the case a 100M sprinter could run with his mouth gaffer taped shut and still hit the same time as his rivals.
Anaerobic energy is created in addition to the energy that is being generated aerobically, you are using anaerobically generated energy while reading this. It is only an incredibly tiny fraction of the energy being created (think several decimal places), but is it ticking over like a pilot light, ready to leap into action at a moment’s notice.
To illustrate this more clearly here is a graph created using WKO4 (more information here) that visualises the energy systems used by an athlete at different timeframes. The data is collated using the athlete’s best performances at the time periods listed on the X axis, with the maximum power than can sustain for that period on the Y axis. I use these graphs to help athletes gain a better understanding of their individual physiologies to help us understand where we need to focus our training effort.
Today we want to focus on the green and the blue lines, the green line represents aerobic contribution, the blue line anaerobic. If we start to the left of the chart we can see that at 1 second there is very little contribution from the aerobic system as the body has not started increasing the rate at which it pumps oxygen to the muscles yet, but using glycosides the body can create energy within the muscles and get us moving immediately. As we look closer towards the 10 second mark the aerobic system is really starting to get up to speed now, additional oxygen has been absorbed from the lungs and is being pumped to the muscles to get them fired up.
For this athlete, it is at one minute 6 seconds that the crossover occurs, and the aerobic system takes over as the primary fuel source. The aerobic system has fuel, it can continue indefinitely for as long as it has fuel, the anaerobic system making a tiny contribution that can increase on hills or when accelerating hard.
Looking at the 20 minute data point, the anaerobic system is still contributing 10W of power, which is still a respectable amount, I’m sure if this athlete saw their FTP drop by 10W they would be mortified. Remember, this is looking at the athlete’s best 20 minute effort, not all 20 minute efforts use such a proportion of the anaerobic system.
Going back to the graph, it would look very different for a track sprinter compared to a time trialist (which this athlete is classified as). In a sprinter the anaerobic system would make a much greater contribution, it would continue for much longer before the intersection with the aerobic system as sprinters need to hold maximum power for as long as possible. Their aerobic system will be very weak comparatively and they would struggle to keep up on a gentle Sunday club run as a result.
So now we’ve gone through the science, let’s have a look at the takeaway points, and how a better understanding of the two energy systems can aid your training:
-There is no benefit to developing your anaerobic system for most triathletes. I know an extremely successful athlete who has raced at Kona, yet claims he can’t sprint for toffee (never seen him sprint so can’t confirm this). He doesn’t need to train or develop his anaerobic system, he’s happy to let it fall by the wayside almost entirely to focus entirely on his aerobic system. That’s not to say that he won’t start leaning on anaerobic pathways during some sessions (such as hill reps), but the goal of these sessions is to develop muscular force, not to increase anaerobic ability although this may come as a byproduct.
-You’re never completely aerobic or anaerobic, the body is always using both, even if in very small amounts. Your anaerobic threshold is where you start to produce energy primarily from the anaerobic pathway and should be avoided for the majority of your sessions
-Avoid using large amounts of anaerobic energy in your training. It feels good as it leaves you feeling more fatigued, and changes in your anaerobic system are faster to gain and easier to track than gains in your aerobic system (“I’m 5 seconds faster up that hill!”), but are of little use to the vast majority of triathletes when it comes to race day. I know I’ve certainly fallen foul of this one in the past.
-Many fitness tests require you to use large proportions of anaerobic energy, as triathletes we are not testing you for improvements in these areas, rather trying to assess your current weighting between aerobic/anaerobic energy sources. If an athlete puts out the same amount of watts over a set period as his previous best but the anaerobic contribution is lower then the previous test, this will result in an increase in FTP when uploaded to WKO4.
I hope this has given you a better understanding of the role that aerobic and anaerobic pathways play in endurance sport, leave any questions in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer them.
WKO4 is a complex piece of software that allows me as a coach to analyse my athlete’s data in unprecedented detail. It uses a powerful mathematical model to calculate metrics that allow for much more accurate training, by giving an accurate estimation of your FTP as it changes over time as well as providing us with individualised training zones along with new ways to review data and track progress.
It’s easy for me to get caught up in the science and mathematics, so I’ll try to keep it simple to give you an idea of the benefits of training with us and how it can help develop you as an athlete.
Power Duration Curve
This is the heart of WKO4, it takes data from millions of points over the last 90 days to give an estimation of how much power an athlete is capable of producing at different timeframes. Taking this example of my own sorry excuse for training in the previous 90 days, you can see two lines, the yellow line and the red curve.
The yellow line is my Mean Maximal Power, the maximum power I can hold for any duration, you can see some definite drops at points where you can see I haven’t given it any good data beyond that point until it meets the next drop, this is very common towards the end of the power duration curve.
The red line is the model that WKO4 has created, estimating what it believes I can achieve by filling in some of the blanks and looking at my physiology. You can see it doesn’t have much raw data (yellow) for between 15 minutes and 1 hour, but it looks at all the data I have given it and gives me the benefit of the doubt, if I were to do some hard riding in this time period it would give me a more accurate number, whether this lowers or raises my FTP is not important to me, the most important thing is ensuring my zones are correct so I’m training in the right zones and stimulating the right energy systems.
You can also see several white lines moving from left to right, these help give me a good idea of my strengths and weaknesses. It doesn’t even consider me to have a ‘recreational’ level sprint and I haven’t done any big power work in the last 90 days, however it classifies my 10-30 minute power as “excellent”. This does not compare my wattage to other riders, but rather looks at my W/KG, how many watts I can output for each kilogram of bodyweight. The curve clearly shows that my sprint power is a weakness, but I’m training for an Ironman, it’s not a limiter to my performance and my focus is elsewhere as a result.
This stands for modelled FTP, and gives you one of, if not the most accurate idea of what your FTP is. Many people believe FTP is the highest power you can hold for an hour, which has resulted in several slightly masochistic riders going out and riding as hard as they can for an hour to get their FTP number. The alternative to this is the vastly more popular 20 minute test which I have previously used, but moved away from in favour of using WKO4’s mFTP, there are two reasons for this.
Firstly the highest power you can hold for an hour is an over simplification which has taken root in road cycling at every level, however this is not an absolute value, and has only ever been described as an estimate, the definition of mFTP that exercise physiologists use is *deep breath*
“The maximum power you can hold in a quasi steady state without fatiguing”
This can range from approximately 30 minutes to 70 minutes and is expressed in WKO4 as TTE, or time to exhaustion. The eagle eyed among you may notice that my TTE is currently very low, which informs me this is a weakness and something I need to address.
The 20 minute test is also flawed in that it takes 95% of your 20 minute power and calls this your new FTP, however for many this isn’t the case. For 70% of athletes this may be accurate, however for 15% they may need to take 97% of that figure, and the other 15% may need 93%. mFTP removes the guesswork from FTP calculations as rather than looking at a singe data point (your highest 20 minute power value) it looks at millions of data points from all of your riding to calculate your mFTP.
The lack of formal testing will come as a welcome relief to many, including myself. I can’t think of any athlete who has ever come to me and relished in these 20 minute efforts, they tend to dread these tests and they result in long recovery periods as the athlete is totally cooked. Last year I worked with a very strong athlete who I helped qualify for the World Championships that I remember building himself up for a 20 minute FTP test. He had the goal of hitting a certain number, worked out what power he’d need to hold for the 20 minutes to achieve this figure and guess what? He hit that number. The figure was a good result, but could he have gone harder? Or was it only the target he had set himself that got him through the test to hit that number? There’s also the issue with pacing, it takes a number of tests to give you a true understanding of how hard you can push yourself in those 20 minutes.
That’s not to say that we don’t do any testing, like any mathematical model, the more data you feed it the better the data it outputs, for this reason we ask athletes to perform a series of tests to give us a baseline at the start of the year to give us accurate numbers. I am writing this in early January in the middle of testing myself, once the initial tests have been completed (5 minute, 20 minute, 1 minute and 15 seconds) we then look to maintain these values over the year, using charts such as this one to identify where we need to give the curve more information:
The software is asking the athlete for more information at the 2 second, 52 second and 1:29 point to give it more information. Timing a 2 second test seems almost impossible, and a 1:30 test seems unnecessarily stressful to me, so in this situation I would give the athlete a 52 second test and leave it there, as the 1:30 and 2 second data points will populate themselves over time.
This is short for individualised levels, and represents the training zones recommended by the WKO4 model for different intensities, taking into account each athlete’s individual characteristics.
If we take two athletes with an identical FTP, but one of them is focusing on sprint triathlons and the other on Ironman, they will have very different power duration curves. WKO4 takes this into account and ensures that each athlete is working at the correct intensity to provoke the desired training effect, as opposed to the one size fits all approach that is used by most others, including the primary TrainingPeaks website. To combat this I spend time every week updating athlete’s iLevels on TrainingPeaks to ensure they match those on WKO4.
Many of you will be familiar with terms such as “tempo” “sweetspot” and “threshold” but the exact meaning of these may be unfamiliar to you, for many they are simply terms used to express how hard they feel they are pushing. The traditional 5 power zones are active recovery, endurance, tempo, threshold and sprint, but with WKO4 these are expanded to include:
Zone 1: Active Recovery
0-56% of FTP
This is the zone you will find yourself in when resting between intervals or if things have gone wrong in a race (happens to the best of us!). In this zone you’re riding, but you’re not really generating much of a training effect, so we aim for at least zone 2 in our longer workouts.
Zone 2: Endurance
56-76% of FTP
As a triathlete this is where you will spend the vast majority of your time. It’s not exciting, it’s not sexy and it can be dull, but it’s necessary for a strong aerobic foundation that allows us to race harder for longer on the big day itself. This should feel manageable and you should be able to sustain it for at least 2.5 hours. You can never have enough base fitness, but once you are able to ride for several hours with minimal changes in your heart rate it’s time to develop our training. As you can see this is quite a large range of your FTP, meaning it is easier to sit in this zone than other, which is a good thing as you’ll be spending a lot of time here!
Zone 3: Tempo
76-88% of FTP
This zone is where things start to get serious, some athletes will be able to stay here for an hour or two, others for up to eight hours, it depends on how well trained you are and more importantly the type of training you have been doing. This is the zone in which very well trained athletes will spend the majority of their Ironman 70.3 bike leg. However just because you can ride 90KM at tempo doesn’t mean it should be your goal for the race, as you still need to be able to run off the bike.
Zone 4: Sweetspot
88-95% of FTP
This is a great zone to sit in if you’re looking to boost your FTP, as for many road cyclists a high FTP is a badge of honour, something for them to brag about at the cafe stop. However as triathletes we use our FTP to base our race efforts off of, and it is as important for us to extend the time we can spend at FTP as increasing the number itself. As a result we spend less time training at sweet spot than road cyclists, but it still makes a frequent occurrence in the build period.
Zone 5: FTP
95-105% of FTP
This is your threshold value, or thereabouts. Sitting in this zone hurts, and you won’t spend much time here, nor will we train here for extended periods very often as the fatigue accumulated is significant, sweet spot is a much more economical way of boosting our FTP and resistance to fatigue.
Zone 6: FTP/FRC
This is the crossover point between our threshold and FRC, more details below
Zone 7: FRC
Your Functional Reserve Capacity looks at the amount of energy you can create while working above threshold, which is traditionally anaerobically. This is of little interest to us as non drafting triathletes as we don’t need to sprint or attack on the bike, so we rarely train in this zone.
Zone 8: FRC/PMAX
This is the crossover point between our FRC and PMAX, more details below
Zone 9: PMAX
This is the absolute maximum, or neuromuscular power we can generate in one complete revolution of the crack arms. Generally speaking efforts in this zone last for less than 10 seconds, the only time we should be in this zone is during fitness testing or potentially for a couple of seconds if we launch a blistering attack in a draft legal race.
This is only scratching the surface of the capabilities of WKO4, I have been using the software myself for a year, experimenting with it and playing around with the charts myself before I gained the confidence to start applying it confidently to my athletes. While its primary function is allowing us to monitor, and develop bike power, it also looks at pedalling effectiveness, aerobic development, fatigue resistance, provides you with a season review, power balance, the list goes on and that only covers the cycling side of things, there are a huge number of graphs for running and swimming.
If you wish to learn more about how we implement WKO4 in our training programmes, E-mail Simon@phazontriathlon.com for more information.
When you begin training with us here at Phazon Triathlon, one of the first things we do is create your Annual Training Plan, or ATP. This is a framework which we use to base your training off of, so you can understand decisions we make and can see how your training will progress over the year. However the acronyms and numbers can be confusing so I wanted to take some time to explain the meaning of all the figures you see to help you better understand and use your ATP.
For this example I will be using an ATP I have just written myself for the 2019 season, here is a screen grab for you.
As you can see, there is a lot of information squeezed into a screen here, so let me talk you through what it all means.
The most attention grabbing part of the screen is the chart at the top with various colours of lines and bars. The most important of these is the big blue shaded area that fills the majority of the screen. this is my CTL, or critical training load, which simply put is how fit I will be at that time of year. I am currently sitting on a figure of 44 and am forecast to hit 99 before IRONMAN UK in July. Notice however that the line is not a straight line, it levels off and even drops at points, this is because I need easy weeks for my body to recover, continually building fitness throughout the year is a sure way to burnout.
The mustard coloured shaded area is my form, this is how race ready I will be, as you can see here it peaks in two periods during the year, for my A races. When we train we add fatigue which impacts on our form, we must lower the training load for our form to increase, a process known as tapering.
Our training load for each week is represented by the vertical bars, these are the TSS targets I have set myself for each week. As I complete each week these will become shaded to tell me whether I have missed, hit, or overshot my target for the week. The blue and yellow dotted lines will also start to move around, these represent my actual fitness and fatigue, I can use this to see whether they are closely corresponding to the shaded areas, and whether I’m on track. As you can see from this screen grab I was slightly below target for my first week of the preparation phase, but I didn’t miss it by much and it will make next to no difference to my performance on race day.
What may confuse those of us new to the sport are the period names at the bottom of the chart, these are preparation, Base 1, Base 2, Base 3, Build 1, Build 2, Peak, Race and Transition.
This is a very relaxed phase of the training, these is much less in the way of structure here, the only really structured work taking place in the gym where we begin the anatomical adaptation phase (more on this later). Why would you have phase of unstructured training you may ask, especially if you’re feeling apprehensive about your event. Triathlon training is tough, it takes a lot of time and energy to train for these events, it takes a toll on the body and the mind in equal measure. With the preparation phase we give new athletes a chance to get their head around working with a coach, and give experienced athletes a chance to wind themselves back to up to full tilt.
The purpose of this period changes depending on your level of experience, if you are a rookie triathlete you will spend this time moving to a more structured programme, focusing on improving aerobic endurance and your speed skills (technique). If however you are an experienced triathlete and are confident in the gym there is a big focus on weights at this stage to build our maximal strength, this allows us to swim, bike and run faster while also preventing injuries. We also use this time to work on our speed skills, primarily our swimming technique.
Base 2 We continue the theme of building on our endurance and speed skills here, stepping back from the heavy gym work to allow us to focus more on our aerobic endurance and speed skills. Lifting big weights is an effective way to improve your performance, but it has an effect on your ability to swim, bike and run in the following days so is generally consigned to the Base 1 period.
Base 3 This is the period you will spend most of your time in, for the rookie athlete who may just be looking to get round their event, the rest of the year may be spent in base 3. For those who are looking to build speed we will repeat this phase until we are 8-12 weeks out of our first A race, so depending on when you start your season dictates how many times you will repeat base 3. You will also return to base 3 after an A race if you have enough time, and will return to base 3 if you have more than a few days off of training at any point in the build phase.
Build 1 This is where we focus almost entirely on muscular endurance work, extending the periods for which you can maintain your threshold and race pace efforts, the exact contents of this phase depend on the distance you are training for, for Ironman athletes it will involve longer workouts set at or around race pace where for short course athletes it will involve much more in the way of speed work. Either way, as we get closer to our race our training must better reflect the demands of race day.
This is simply a repeat of the Build 1, but normally with a slightly higher TSS target, the focus remains on muscular endurance with less time spend on long easy workouts.
Peak This is also known as your taper, the time in the year where we back off of the hard training and allow our body to recover to become race fit. Remember how the orange shaded area (my form) shot up as we approached the races? That’s because I back off training then and my body reaches peak fitness. Training doesn’t make us stronger, anyone who tells you they feel stronger after a long run is telling your porkies, it’s the period after our training where our body repairs itself that we become stronger, a period of peaking (1-2 weeks) ensures our body is well rested and as strong as it can be for race day, you don’t want any lingering fatigue from your training as you line up at the start.
Race Self explanatory, it’s race week! Very little training, with a focus on intensity one volume to ensure we’re raring to go when we wake up on race day.
Transition This is a period of rest after an A race, where we take a well deserved rest. You can still train at this point, but it should only be for fun. This is a great time to try other sports and just generally enjoy being active.
Going through every phase is a very lengthy process and so can only be achieved two or three times a year. In an ideal world I would have longer between my A races but as Bolton is relatively easy in the season I couldn’t get a warm up 70.3 in any earlier without travelling to the Southern Hemisphere.
This leads us onto B and C priority races, currently I only have one other event on the cards, my club championship 5K race. I want to perform relatively well to take back my title from 2015, but I’ll be in the base period at the time and I can’t afford to take too much time out to prepare for it, so I’ll perhaps do a few 5K specific workouts in the days before, have a rest day on the Saturday, and see where it takes me. As I’m organising some training around it, this makes it a B race. The final category is a C race which is normally a race entered with friends, to gain experience, or just for fun. They are treated just like a hard workout with no preparation beforehand.
So now we’ve prioritised our races, and have split our year up into periods, the next step is setting our training volume, which I set as a TSS value for you. This is where things start to become more personalised, TrainingPeaks has an algorithm which can split the year into periods for you and you can set a target CTL, it will do the maths and hand you an automated ATP.
You may have been doing some reading and heard that a CTL of 95 is recommended for an Ironman, so you put a target CTL of 95 in and get cracking with your training. The problem being that you may be a rookie athlete training for their first Ironman and there is no way you can hit those numbers, either you’ll burn out in the first few weeks or even worse you’ll succumb to complete over training later in the season, sidelining you for the rest of the year. You may also be an athlete who recovers more slowly and your recovery weeks need to be easier than TrainingPeaks’ algorithm allows for. By analysing your training history and asking questions we can start to put target TSS values together for you to ensure your TSS targets are realistic. We don’t work to a target CTL for your A race, we instead start by inputting numbers we believe you can maintain, increase them steadily through the year and see what our final CTL value is. If it’s too low we see how training goes and will consider increasing the volume in the weeks and months that follow.
At this point it is worth remembering that the human body is not a mathematical equation, people have got round Ironman races with far less than 95CTL points, and if that’s all you’re looking to achieve then there’s no need to sacrifice your social life upon the altar of triathlon to hit an arbitrary number. These figures are great for helping us to track progress, but they are not the be all and end all.
CTL is probably the most important number, but what we also need to take into consideration is how we increase the number, and for that the form number is an underrated tool to help us ensure we are making improvements and not stagnating. Your form number can sit in the following brackets:
25+ should only be reached in times of transition, or a total rest from training, or perhaps if an athlete is injured and unable to train.
+5 to +25 is the range many will aim to hit for race day. A higher number isn’t always better as you also lose some frying from your legs, and run the risk of feeling empty on race day.
+5 to -10 is a bit of a great area, and where a lot of untouched athletes will sit, they’re certainly doing some training, but probably not enough to illicit enough of a training response for them to get enough to see significant fitness gains. Athletes will often find themselves in this zone on easy weeks.
-10 to -30 is the optimal zone to sit in for a good training effect, you can’t stay here forever as it’ll start to fatigue you, but this is where the best gains are made.
below -30 is the high risk zone where you run a very real risk of overtraining. If you find yourself on the wrong side of -30 which can happen to the best of us sometimes, you need to lift and coast, reducing volume, perhaps even taking an unplanned rest day if you feel you need it. Spending too much time at this level of fatigue can cause long term problems to both your performance and health.
My CTL is set to peak at 99, which is a good CTL for someone looking to perform well at an Ironman race, however the chances of me reaching that exact number are incredibly slim. I may start the build period and feel I’m having to hold back to hit my weekly targets, in which case I could try kicking everything up by 25 TSS points a week, which would give me a CTL closer to 110. By the same token, I may crash my bike on some ice in February and have a week with little to no training, which means I’ll have to readjust my targets.
This is an important point, your ATP is not set in stone, it’s incredibly rare (possibly unknown) for someone to make it through an entire year hitting every target as life happens. Business trips are sprung on you, your kids may become unwell, your bike may have to wait a long time for essential spares, a lot can get between you and your perfect season of training, but the good thing is that an ATP is pretty flexible. Phases can be reassigned, targets can be adjusted and even your target races changed, the important thing is it ensures that we are both on the same page.
Next up is weekly limiters, this is where the experience of a coach and their knowledge of you as an athlete really comes into play as we make each week specific to you.
Using myself as an example, I can break each sport down into strengths and weaknesses to show how an ATP can be curated to each individual athlete
I know that as an athlete two primary areas are limiting me in the swim, my technique and my force, or more importantly the application of force which is intrinsic with technique. I can comfortably swim well over 4KM so endurance is not a huge concern for me, but enhancing the speed that I can hold for longer durations is important. This year my focus is going to be primarily on technique with an additional focus on force (improved by using paddles), with muscular endurance and endurance taking a backseat for now. As I live in London where the weather is not conclusive to year round open water swimming I swim exclusively in the pool until April/May at the very earliest as the lakes start to open. Therefore my plan is to focus on technique and force work in the pool, before taking to the open water in the spring and applying the gains I have made in the pool into the open water whilst building me endurance to ensure I can still comfortably swim 4K at my improved pace.
I have come to acknowledge in recent months that my aerobic fitness is just not where it should be, and I struggle to replicate my success in short course racing over longer distances, with this in mind my focus throughout most of the year will be on endurance. You may notice that I include some muscular endurance work during the base period which is doesn’t fit in with traditional periodisation. This is because the weather in the UK can be very inconclusive to outdoor riding due to the freezing temperatures and torrential rainstorms we experience, and I don’t have the time to sit on the turbo for three hours every time I want to ride. By introducing muscular endurance work on the turbo this is a way for me to ensure I keep improving when I don’t have enough time to build my endurance. When the weather starts to improve in April/May the focus will shift away from muscular endurance and almost fully towards endurance when I can get regular long rides done on my TT bike out on the open roads. This is known as reverse periodisation, and is a method I have used to great success with my athletes in the past, as it still follows the golden rule of periodisation, the closer you get to race day the closer your training should resemble racing, and when your aim is to ride 180KM, leaving the really long rides to the end of the year makes sense.
My main limiter in running is injury, so the focus is almost entirely on improving force (specifically exercises building my hamstrings/glutes) and endurance runs. I know I have top end speed in spades but struggle over longer distances so the priority is to become injury free to allow me to train for longer at higher speeds. This is achieved by increasing volume and intensity gently, with much less work on speed.
You can see here the adjustments that need to be made to an ATP even for an experienced athlete to make the most out of their training and make it specific to them. The limiters field also includes the ability to schedule tests in advance, ensuring that our threshold values stay consistent and are not outdated, resulting in inefficient training.
The final part of our ATP to decipher is our strength period, there are three options here, anatomical adaptation, maximal strength and strength maintenance. Anatomical adaptation is when we start working in the gym with light weights and a high number of reps, maximal strength is when we start to lower the reps and increase the weight for some high reward strength training. For the rest of the year we focus on strength maintenance which will involve weekly visits to the gym to ensure we do not lose the strength gains we made in the winter.
I hope this has given you the tools you need to understand the importance of having an ATP as well as helping you understand some of the jargon that is attached to your ATP. If you wish to improve your knowledge of periodisation and the way each phase of training contributes to your fitness, I recommend picking up the most recent edition of Joe Friel’s “Triathlete’s Training Bible) which this article was influenced heavily by. If you are interested in having a bespoke ATP made up for you, why not head to our apply page to begin your coaching journey.