Triathlon cycling technique: 10 common mistakes on the bike leg

Cycling coach Nik Cook explains 10 common mistakes triathletes make on the bike leg and how to put them right

A triathlete on bike during the 2018 Isuzu Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Credit: Donald Miralle / Stringer / Getty Images Europe

Mess up the bike leg and the rest of your race can begin to unravel, and fast. To make sure that doesn’t happen, cycling coach Nik Cook is here to outline the most common mistakes triathletes make and explain how to put them right.

Advertisement MPU article

1. Poor pacing

By far the most common triathlon biking mistake, made by seasoned pros and novices alike, is overcooking the bike and trashing your run as a result. It’s all too easy to do, with the excitement of race day and freshly tapered legs, but, especially for long course, will spell disaster. Test for your functional threshold power (FTP) or Functional Threshold Heart Rate (FTHR) regularly (every 8-12 weeks), set accurate zones based on these metrics, train to them and then also race to them with 100% discipline. Especially if you’re using a power meter, there’s really no excuse for getting your pacing wrong but it’s amazing how many people seem to think they’ll get a miraculous race day boost, ignore the numbers they’re seeing and just squeeze that bit harder. It will always come back to bite you and always result in your underperforming.

2. Bad fuelling

Fuelling is intrinsically linked to pacing. Almost all cases of athletes suffering from GI distress or struggling with nutrition on the bike are simply down to the fact that they’re pushing too hard. Above a certain intensity, blood flow to your stomach will be diverted to your working muscles and it’ll effectively shut down. You can put fuel into your mouth but it’ll just sit in your stomach, doing nothing, apart rom making you feel bloated and sick.

The bike leg is your main opportunity in a triathlon for getting a decent amount of fuel into your tank so don’t blow it. Use training to learn at what intensity you can tolerate food, in what amount and frequency and what type. Once you find the formula that works for you, stick to it. Incidentally, if you tend to suffer from cramp, you’re probably pushing too hard too. Most recent studies have shown that cramp has very little to do with hydration or electrolyte deficiencies but is mainly down to muscle fatigue.

3. Unsustainable bike position

We’ve all seen it, the rider with the full on aggressive aero set-up but sat bolt upright on the bullhorns as if out for a Sunday club run. Yes it’s great to have a super aero position but it has to be sustainable and you have to be able to run off it too. Getting a physio led bike fit, preferably using motion capture, is probably one of the best performance investments you can make.

Another really common positioning mistake is just to slap clip-on aero bars on a road bike. The geometry of a road bike means that, in most cases, you’ll need to change saddle height, fore and aft and probably fit a shorter stem to properly accommodate the tri bars. Fail to do this and you’ll find yourself in a way too stretched position with a horrendously closed hip angle. You’ll be giving away heaps of power and it won’t be conducive to a good run off the bike.

4. Inadequate training on race set-up

Here’s a fact that a lot of triathletes don’t seem to be aware of, carbon fibre does not melt in the rain. You can’t wrap your tri bike and deep section wheels up in cotton wool, only ride them on race day and then expect to post a decent bike split.

It’s only by training on your race set-up that you become fully accustomed to the position and how the bike handles. Yes, you can pop in some training wheels for long rides but do enter some time trials, use your deep sections and become 100% confident riding them even in gusty winds. Fail to do this and you’ll waste energy battling your bike or won’t have the confidence to hold your aero position.

5. Lack of planning

A bit of research and preferably a course recce can make a real difference on the bike leg. Even if you only have time to drive round the course or check it out on Google Maps, you’ll be able to see any sharp bends or be aware of nasty sudden rises that require a tricky gear shift. Make a note of landmarks that’ll help you to pace climbs and any potholes or hazards that could cause you a problem. This will allow you to ride faster and with more confidence.

Make sure you know exactly how often aid stations will be available and what they’ll be providing. If it’s not the fuel you’re used to using in training, make sure you try it before the race or decide on a self sufficient strategy. This type of information is easily available for almost all races and it’s just foolish not to take advantage of it and ride blind.

6. Neglecting bike handling skills

Cycling well is a highly skilled activity and, unless you’re a competent bike handler, you’re always going to underperform on race day. At a very basic level, are you comfortable drinking or swapping a bottle on the go, can you unwrap an energy bar while riding and are you confident on descents? It’s only by riding on your race set-up and practicing these key skills that you’ll master them.

Spending the winter bolted to a turbo is not the way to become a better bike rider. Aim to become a solid all-round rider. Get out on your mountain bike, ride cyclocross, try the track and take part in some circuit races. You’ll save energy by being more relaxed and efficient on the bike and many of the skills you learn will cross-over.

Cyclocross mounts and dismounts in and out of transition, mountain biking giving you cornering confidence, learning bunch riding skills in draft-legal events and being able to bunny-hop that pothole could be a race saver.

7. Cluttered bike

Take a look at the front end of a pros bike and what’ll strike you is how clean and uncluttered it is. Maybe a BTA bottle with a computer hidden behind it but that’ll be about it. Contrast this with a typical age-grouper who will have a plentitude of gadgets, bottles, food, bento boxes and even mascots attached to the most aerodynamically sensitive area of their bike.

Be ruthless, only carry what you really need and even then try and get it out of the wind. You’ve probably spent a lot of money on an aero optimised frame, don’t ruin it by strapping on the kitchen sink.

8. Clothing and equipment issues

Most common and costly clothing/equipment mistake is having the wrong aero helmet for your riding position. The helmet should create a smooth transition from your head to your upper back. If you tend to drop or move your head a lot, this won’t happen and a long tailed helmet could end up costing you speed by sticking up into the air. Choose a snub tailed helmet instead.

Also, if it’s really hot, the cooling vs aero trade off for a traditional vented helmet may be the best call, it never did Chrissie Wellington any harm at Kona. Then, look at those little details. Cut off excess chin-strap material, make sure your tri-suit is well fitted, do up that zip and position your race number out of the wind. All little things but none of them a big effort and they all add up.

9. Lack of mechanical knowledge

If you’re racing a bike, you should have a basic understanding of how it works and how to sort common problems. A minor mechanical should not result in a DNF. Make sure you’ve tested and practiced your puncture routine. Don’t be that guy sat on the side of the road covered in Pit-Stop foam.

Learn to ride in a mechanically sensitive way, avoid extreme chain-lines, shifting under heavy load and dragging your brakes of long descents. Finally, always keep your bike clean, well maintained and be aware of squeaks, rattles and misfires. Don’t ignore them until your next ride thinking they’ll magically disappear and definitely don’t turn up on race day with them unsorted.

10. Poor pedalling technique

Or, poor technique in general. This doesn’t mean you have to spend hours on single-legged drills to develop the perfect souplesse pedalling style but you should be really trying to avoid some big technique blunders. Don’t mash the downstroke, try to focus on scraping your foot through the bottom of the stroke and then unweighting it.

Don’t splay your knees out. This is a massive aero no-no, if this is happening to you, you probably want to get your position looked at. Keep your upper body still and relaxed.

Watch Sir Bradley Wiggins, his upper body just doesn’t move. Swaying and rocking just creates a bigger profile to force through the air, back off a bit, relax and think compact. Don’t buy into the, ‘you have to ride with a high cadence’ brainwashing. Find a cadence that works for you.

Advertisement MPU article

We’re all different, some riders go better grinding at 60rpm, others need to spin at 100rpm plus. There’s no one-cadence-suits-all, experiment to find the range that works best for you, allows you to ride your optimum bike leg and keeps your legs fresh for the run.