How to pace the bike leg and use your gears effectively

Mastering your gears and pacing is key to not only a fast bike, but a strong run, too. Pete Bonfield’s got all the techniques you’ll need to improve your ride…


Pace judgement and gears are the two aspects of bike technique that will probably save you more time than any other, and which will also help when you run off the bike. Every minute counts come race day, and if all that hard training is to pay off you need to make sure that every aspect of your race is polished to perfection.


To optimise your performance during a race it’s critical that you carefully control your effort. In an Olympic-distance or sprint event your aim is to maintain your heart rate at – or just below – your lactate threshold level. This is the level of effort that you can maintain for an hour or so of biking without going anaerobic and accumulating lactates (the waste product of anaerobic respiration) in your muscles. Lactates stop your muscles working efficiently, causing you to slow down, so you want to avoid going above your lactate threshold at any time during a race.

What is lactate and lactate threshold?

Equally, you don’t want to ride at less than your lactate threshold. If you do you will be losing time – riding at just a couple of beats under your lactate threshold can lose you around 2mins over an hour-long ride. Manage your effort carefully and you’ll be able to ride close to your lactate threshold without exceeding it.

Pace yourself

To perform consistently well throughout a race you need to manage your effort – and that may mean holding yourself back as well as pushing yourself to work harder.
For instance, when approaching a hill most riders will be tempted to attack it and ride really hard. Bad move! If you really push yourself here you’ll raise your pulse rate above your lactate threshold, go anaerobic and accumulate lactates in your muscles. This will slow you down for the rest of the race, losing you unnecessary time.

So keep an eye on your heart rate monitor and control your effort, making sure that you don’t exceed your lactate threshold heart rate. You may feel that you should be riding harder, especially if other athletes are passing you on the hill, but don’t worry – if they’re pushing themselves too hard their bike split and overall race time will be adversely affected.

Equally, don’t ease off when travelling downhill, unless it’s dangerous. Any time spent riding at, or under, your lactate threshold heart rate will slow you down, so pedal downhill to keep your pulse rate up.

Goal: Maintain a constant heart rate at, or just below, your lactate threshold.

Level cadence

Just as your cardiovascular system has an optimum racing rate, so does your pedal cadence. You should have spent time over the last few months developing a pedal cadence of between 80 and 100rpm – your natural and most efficient pedal cadence is likely to be somewhere in this range. Find out what yours is and ensure that you maintain it during a race.

A triathlete’s guide to bike cadence

How to pedal efficiently

Is there a ‘right’ way for triathletes to pedal?

Don’t make the mistake of riding higher (or harder) gears and reducing your rpm to a rate that’s lower than
the one at which you have trained your legs to work efficiently. If you do you’ll go slower, your leg muscles will fatigue quicker and it’ll be harder to run off the bike.

Your cadence rate will also affect your heart rate – pedal slowly and your heart rate will probably drop, but you’ll use too much muscle power. Pedal too fast and your heart rate will increase, but you’ll be wasting energy and not optimising your speed.

Goal: Maintain the cadence rate you have trained for. Don’t ride harder gears at a slower cadence. Change your gears during a race to maintain an even cadence.

Maintain momentum

Momentum (your mass multiplied by your speed) should be maintained and built at every opportunity. For example, you need to maintain the added momentum you build when travelling down a hill (with the assistance of gravity) as long as possible. You also need to build up momentum as quickly as possible after you’ve climbed a hill or ridden into a head wind. You must get rid of any slack periods during a race (for example, as you crest a hill) so that you’re always working on building back or gaining momentum. It takes effort to get your mass up to a reasonable speed and you should do everything you can to conserve it.

Goal: Aim to build and conserve momentum throughout your race. Remove any slack points.

Using gears

Using your gears properly will affect each of the three critical areas described above. First, it’s helpful to describe how your gears work.

The gear you choose will influence the distance you travel for each pedal revolution. A high (or hard) gear will cause your back wheel to rotate further per pedal revolution than a lower gear would. Therefore, at the same rate of pedalling you will go faster in a higher gear than you would in a lower one.

Most tri bikes have a 53-tooth outer chainring and a 39-tooth inner chainring, although compact chainsets are increasingly being sold with a 48-tooth outer and 36-tooth inner rings. The progression in the number of teeth on the sprocket cluster on your rear wheel will often be 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 19, 21, 23, although other combinations are also often found. This type of sprocket cluster is preferable for most races because most of the sprockets are sequential, giving the smallest differences between gears and making your progression smooth. Those bikes with two-tooth jumps between sprockets aren’t so good for racing because there’s too much difference between the gears, causing you to push too slowly with one gear, but spin too fast with the one below it.

The gear to power ratio box (above) summarises the gears you get with the different chainring and rear sprocket combinations along with actual distance travelled per revolution.

The way you use your gears in a race will considerably influence how well you manage your heart rate, your cadence
and momentum. In short, using your gears properly will save precious time on your bike splits.


The following situations explain how  and when to change gear. Remember:
your goals are to keep your heart rate and cadence consistent and to conserve and build-up momentum. There should be no wasted moments in your race.