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Home / Training / Bike / Group Cycling: Part 2

Group Cycling: Part 2

In Part 2 of following a triathlon club's group ride, Andy Bullock shows what we can learn from their nutritional and tactical strategies

In Part 1 of this article, we focused on the benefits of riding in a group by joining up with Bristol and District Triathletes’ (BAD Tri) weekly ride. Now we’ll look at the nutrition the riders used before, during and after the ride; how the riders approached the climbs and descents; and profiles one of the riders and the techniques he used on the major climb.

Nutrition is of the utmost importance when both training and racing in endurance events. It’s key to ensuring the body is prepared, provided with enough energy at the right times and recovers to its optimum. Paying attention to this area can improve both your training and racing.

You are what you eat

As part of this feature, the BAD Tri riders completed a questionnaire that included questions on their nutritional intake from meals the evening before the ride, pre-ride meals, fluid and energy intake during the ride, plus their post-ride eating habits.

Their pre-ride meals included toast, bowls of cereal, coffee, tea and orange juice. The aim of any pre-ride meal is to replenish carbohydrate stores after a night’s sleep, a previous training session or simply a previous meal. The meal should consist of a large amount of slow-release carbohydrates (200-300g) and generally be taken in the 2-4hr period before the training ride. If breakfast cereal is your choice, it’s always worth checking the cereal box, as some contain more processed and quick-release carbohydrates than you may realise.

The most accurate way of assessing your fluid needs during a training session is to weigh yourself without clothes before and after your ride. Each kilogramme lost is the equivalent of one litre of fluid. One of the riders drank two litres of fluid during the ride, but the majority drank between 500ml and 1l. This may have left them dehydrated and they’ll have then needed to rehydrate during the rest of the day to aid recovery.

It’s also important not to neglect electrolytes during training; most energy drinks sell a version that contains sodium, magnesium and potassium. Energy was ingested by the riders in both fluid and food form, with cereal bars and gels proving most popular. Having finished the ride, the riders went away to stretch, shower and refuel. Post-ride meals included: turkey, pasta and veg; eggs, beans and toast; toast and tea and fruit; a Mars bar and chocolate roll. But what effect did this have? See the ‘Eat to recover’ box below to find out.


Descending safely and at speed requires a combination of skills, including cornering, braking and quick decision making. If these are not well-practised, time may be lost and the risk of accidents increased.

When descending the hill into Cheddar Gorge, the group spread out and practised their skills. Descending quickly results from minimising speed losses while maintaining control. The safest streamlined position is to hold the handlebars on the drops, where the hands are within reach of the brakes, and keep the elbows and knees tucked into the body with weight back over the rear of the saddle; bent elbows allow the shoulders to be lowered and further improve streamlining. Holding onto the top of the handlebars isn’t advised because the brakes are out of reach and control of the bike is reduced.

The riders lift the inside pedal to the top of the pedal cycle, as this avoids it scraping on the floor and allows pressure to be put on the outside pedal, which again assists with their balance on the bike. Keeping their eyes parallel to the horizon will have enhanced their sense of balance and helped build confidence. This technique can be observed in motorcyclists and skiers when cornering at high speed. Finally, looking along the line the riders were expecting to take through the corners helped guide them correctly through the bends.

Some riders moved the chain onto the large chain ring when descending, which allowed them to be in the correct gear when they resumed pedalling towards the bottom of the hill. This also has the advantage of reducing the rattle and bounce of the chain.

To brake or not to brake

The corners on the descent are mainly sweeping with one sharp left-hander before the gradient reduces. This means most of the bends can be taken at a reasonable speed. Some of the riders chose to brake; doing so before the corner and in a straight line will have allowed their bikes to remain balanced and prevented skidding or subsequent wheel movement in the corner. Feathering or lightly using the brakes helped to control their speed.

Before the corners the riders moved towards the middle of the road, allowing them to enter each corner wide, move close to the inside of the corner at its mid-point and exit wide, maintaining the maximum speed possible. Resisting the urge to cross the midline and remaining on the correct side of the road (as the riders did) reduced the risk of accidents.

The less confident riders braked harder before each corner in order to carry less speed and remain more upright as they moved around the corner. Practising the techniques described above will help improve their descending and cornering.

Climbing to peak fitness

The route used includes three major sections of climbing, the toughest of which was the Cheddar Gorge. However, as the riders’ club use a number of different routes for their long rides, Cheddar Gorge is not a climb faced every week or even every month. Knowing the hill gave some of the riders an advantage.

The length and gradient of the climb, along with corners, the road surface, any obstructions and the likely traffic load are all factors that needed to be considered when climbing a hill. This previous knowledge allowed them to make informed decisions on when to hold back, what gears to choose for each part of the hill, whether it was necessary to stand at any point and at what pace to ride. Climbing also represents a direct challenge to the riders’ power-to-weight ratios. Cyclists who are good at climbing tend to be able to produce proportionally more power for their weight than those who find climbing more difficult.

The climb at Cheddar begins quite steeply and involves several hairpin bends before flattening out to a long but steady climb. During the climb the group showed similar climbing techniques – seated with lower cadence at the bottom of the climb, with only one or two riders standing briefly to produce more power and a slight acceleration to help them get around the steepest corner.

As the gradient of the road decreased, the riders sat down to develop a good rhythm with a higher cadence that allowed them to continue climbing at a reasonable speed to the top. The climb took the riders between 11 and 15mins to complete.

When ascending, the riders generally remained seated with their upper bodies relaxed. As a result more of the power being produced would have gone towards helping move the bike forward. Sitting slightly further back in the saddle and keeping their hands relaxed on the top of the bars allowed them to open up their chests and maintain a good oxygen supply to their lungs. This position is not detrimental to the riders as wind resistance is considerably reduced at (slower) climbing speed.

Standing up while climbing would result in an initially greater power output – good for acceleration – but one that could not be maintained for long. When standing was necessary, the riders were encouraged to hold their heads still to help keep their upper bodies still, to maintain movement in the direction in which they wanted to travel. Swinging the handlebars from side to side, opposite to the downward pedal, helped maintain momentum for a short period. Any extra movement from the upper body both when seated and standing uses up extra energy, because it’s not energy being used to make the bike travel forwards.

Ride cadence

The climb at Cheddar Gorge splits into three sections: for the first 1km there’s an average gradient of 7.3%, which includes some gentle bends; the road then elevates to a gradient of 11.5% over the next 0.2km with sharp bends in both directions; it then almost levels out for the next 3.8km with an average gradient of 2.7%.

Case study: Dave Steadman

Dave stayed seated during the whole climb and kept his cadence as high as possible. He averaged 95rpm during the first 1km, then dropped to 71rpm during the steeper second section. This section also included his lowest cadence during the climb of 55rpm, which occurred going into a steep corner. For the remaining 3.8km, Dave’s cadence averaged 98rpm, only once dropping below 90rpm.

What can we learn from Dave’s climb?

Dave has been working hard over the winter to try and develop his pedalling technique from one which had a lower number of pedal revolutions and involved powerful (but less efficient) pedal strokes to one which sees Dave tapping over the pedals quickly and lightly. However, the point at which Dave’s pedal cadence dropped to 55rpm is particularly steep and, without changing the cassette on the back wheel to one that contained a sprocket with more teeth, he would have found it very difficult to maintain a higher cadence through this corner.

The steeper gradient at the beginning of the climb could lead to riders pushing too hard during the first two sections and having to recover during the longer, less steep final section. Dave’s heart rate showed this and peaked during the second section of climbing. This may have resulted in reduced performance over the entire climb as he couldn’t maintain the effort he initially put in.

Dave mentioned afterwards that he was in his biggest gear at the back. Therefore, putting less effort in would have required him to pedal slower; with his cadence at 55rpm at its lowest during this section, it may not have been possible to pedal too much slower and maintain momentum. If Dave was to climb these gradients regularly, it may be worth him considering changing his rear cassette to one with a larger sprocket to help him regulate his effort and pedal cadence early in this climb.

It’s important to understand that power produced on the bike is a result of strength – the force with which the pedal is pushed down – and speed – the cadence we pedal at. Our muscles contain different types of muscle fibres that include fatigue-resistant slow-twitch fibres, which are good at producing energy using oxygen, and fast-twitch fibres, which are good at producing energy without oxygen but fatigue quickly.

Athletes whose events depend on a lot of sprinting may look to develop their fast-twitch fibres, while endurance athletes should develop their slow-twitch fibres. A slower cadence with more powerful pedal strokes will tend to engage more fast-twitch fibres, while a faster cadence with less powerful pedal strokes will engage more slow-twitch muscle fibres. Both techniques may produce the same amount of power, but the issue here is fatigue resistance.

Developing the ability to use slow-twitch muscle fibres and pace the effort applies to both long rides and climbing. Reaching the top of a hill with legs fresher from producing less power per stroke with a higher rpm will allow Dave to continue at speed. The alternative would have been heavy and tired legs from pushing too hard on the pedals, which would have caused his pace to slow for the next few kilometres while his body recovered.

Andy Bullock is a former 220 Triathlon Coach of the Year. He began his coaching career in 2001 while studying for an MSc in Exercise Physiology

Eat to recover

Goal 1 Restore fluid and electrolyte balance
Goal 2 Replenish depleted glycogen stores
Goal 3 Provide nutrients to help repair muscle damage

Profile image of Matt Baird Matt Baird Editor of Cycling Plus magazine


Matt is a regular contributor to 220 Triathlon, having joined the magazine in 2008. He’s raced everything from super-sprint to Ironman, duathlons and off-road triathlons, and can regularly be seen on the roads and trails around Bristol. Matt is the author of Triathlon! from Aurum Press and is now the editor of Cycling Plus magazine.