How to pace yourself on the bike leg of a triathlon
We show you how to master this tricky but important skill for the longest part of your race
The art of pacing is crucial for race-day success, ensuring you expend your very last drop of energy at the finish line and not before. Andy Blow explains how to get it right on the longest leg of the race – the bike.
When you exit the swim and get going on the bike, your body undergoes extreme changes in the demands placed on it. For starters, you’ve gone from a lying position – with most of your weight supported by the water and using your upper body for propulsion – to sitting more upright on a bike, using your legs to drive you forwards. The whole process is very taxing, as blood flow has to be hastily redirected and the oxygen demand soars.
For these reasons alone, it’s not uncommon to feel a bit out of sorts, and breath, as you initially roll out of T1. All the physiological disruption can make clicking into a sustainable rhythm hard, but the following few pointers should help you settle in for the longest leg of the event.
As at the swim start, there can be a strong temptation to go really hard out of T1, as you feel a sense of relief that the swim is over and the ‘real race’ can now begin. Resist this, and remind yourself there’s still a long way to go.
Once more, focus on getting your breathing under control and ignore anyone who goes flying past you like a bat out of hell – they’re either a lot quicker than you on the bike and will disappear anyway or, more likely, they’ve got over-excited and are simply putting themselves up the road for you to pass later on. Again, mental rehearsal of this will help as, if you’re expecting to have to hold back a little, you’re far more likely to do it when the time comes.
If you use a heart rate monitor or power meter, now is the time to ensure your numbers are not leaping way above what you think you can realistically hold for the duration. If they are, you need to back off, no matter how good you’re feeling. Otherwise it will end in tears.
It can also help to mentally break the ride into three parts. During the first third, you should aim to control your effort and not push too hard. The middle third is all about consolidating your pace. In the final third, you’ll need to dig deeper to maintain the pace as fatigue kicks in and those early adrenalin surges wear off.
To help keep your level of effort under control as you leave T1, put the bike in a relatively low gear so that you have to spin your legs, rather than giving them a huge amount of resistance to push against. Aim to pedal smoothly while you find your desired rhythm and work your way up the gears gradually over the first minute or two as you build to optimal race pace. As in the swim, ensure you exhale deeply. Also, try to stay low on the bike, except when climbing steeper hills, to maintain efficient aerodynamics.
If you’re a strong cyclist but a weaker swimmer, you’ll no doubt be keen to start making up time during your favoured discipline. It’s still not a good idea to start the ride absolutely flat-out, but you can allow yourself to power up to speed rapidly in the first minute or so before settling into a sustainable rhythm. In this scenario, you’re likely to be overtaking plenty of other riders, so aim to pick them off gradually rather than surging by each one, something that can be tiring and waste a lot of energy.
If your swim is stronger than your ride, it can be disheartening to be constantly overtaken on the bike, but don’t be drawn into battling with faster athletes (especially on the hills), as this will lead to a blow-up later on. Focus exclusively on internal cues – such as how you’re feeling and performing against your own race plan. This is tough if you’re a competitive person, but remember that you stand to gain little and lose a lot by maxing out early in the ride.
There are a lot more external factors that can influence bike pacing than tend to disrupt the swim. The most common are wind and hills, and it’s wise to be well informed about these, so check out the course profile and weather forecast in advance. Achieving even-pacing on a flat course on a calm day is much easier than on a rolling route with a vicious headwind.
When you’re riding into a headwind or climbing a hill, you’ll obviously need to put more effort in to maintain a reasonable speed, but be careful not to fight the added resistance too aggressively. When climbing, aim to reach the top of a hill without your legs being completely thrashed, so that you can maintain the pressure over the crest and immediately click up the gears to keep the effort going on the other side.
Sprinting up a hill and coasting down the other side is way less efficient in terms of energy utilisation and average speed, than going moderately hard on the way up and keeping pressure on down the other side.
These give you real-time data on the amount of power you’re applying to the pedals on the bike and allow you to analyse data on a computer post-ride. Prices are dropping all the time, with Garmin’s Vector S available for around £600.
Even the most basic versions will tell you your speed, distance and time, and wired models are incredibly cheap now. An example: VDO A8 cycle computer, RRP £20, www.paligap.cc.
(Images: Jason Newsome/Dave Tyrell)
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