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Strategically Approaching the Bike Course to Optimize the Ride: The 6 C’s of Cycling

Updated: May 4, 2023

I often hear my friends that are great runners say that “the bike is the link between the swim and the run, so back off a bit so that you can tap into that running capability”. The problem is that if an athlete does not bank a lot of run speed, they need to squeeze every second out of that bike course without blowing the body to pieces doing it. Therefore, strategically managing the bike course allows the athlete the opportunity to gain as much time as possible.


Out of Transition 1, one wants to spend the first 5 +/- 2 minutes of the ride completing the physical transformation from the swim, that is, going from completely stretched out to the tucked position on the bike. Often, I have seen folks charging out of transition from the second they start the ride, but then, shortly thereafter, find them limping along the course. What is “comfortable”? One of the things I coach my athletes to do is grasp the concept of finding what is comfortable, slightly uncomfortable, and uncomfortable to help them understand how to manage their effort on the bike course. I have never been one to stare at the power meter to hit a targeted power number based upon the training as race day power can fluctuate based upon how an athlete is feeling that day, the weather conditions, course conditions, and other factors that can have a significant impact on what an athlete is able to generate. In short, if the power number is low, the athlete can feel frustrated they are underperforming, or if high, constantly worrying about blowing up, and then, missing out on a ton of “race day magic”. Therefore, getting the feel initially for riding a pace an athlete could ride “forever”, while still moving along at a healthy speed, are the key to getting rolling out of Transition 1 and setting up for a great ride.


There is no mystery that the larger the rider, the more challenging it is to climb a hill. Watts per Kilogram of weight (w/kg) are indicative of one’s ability to climb. A 200-pound athlete, to hold 3 w/kg (which is considered to be the minimum w/kg average at the low end of a Category 3 cyclist, or when an athlete really starts to show significant biking potential) needs to generate approximately 272 watts vs a 150-pound athlete who needs to hold just over 200 watts. It is simply a lot of work to generate that much energy to move the big body up the hill and is taxing. Therefore, do not get in the habit of mashing big gears while climbing, but leverage cadence by adjusting gearing to tap out a rate of 80-90 revolutions per minute. Unlike bike racing where, the objective of climbing a hill is to get up it as fast as possible, then regroup with whoever tags along and work together to pull away from the field, in triathlon, where the athletes are on their own and do not have the opportunity to work with a draft pack, athletes need to avoid blowing themselves to pieces by burning the legs out on the climb. Therefore, on the climb, the power the athlete is pushing out should be “crescendoing”, that is, progressively increasing power generated on the ascent so that near the apex of the climb one can unleash a little bit of wrath to go over the crest at the highest wattage generated on the climb, then quickly get into the most aerodynamic position possible to begin the descent.

At Nationals in Milwaukee, there are three climbs. At Mile 3, is a relatively steep climb (about 70’ elevation gain over a half mile) after a couple mile false flat, 0.5% to 1.0% grade. At the apex, there is a U-turn where the athlete rips back down the hill they just came up. In this specific case, given that this hill comes shortly after the start of the bike and the amount of recovery the athlete gets on the steep descent, it does make sense to push it hard so far as the descent is leveraged in a tuck position to recover.

The second hill, which is at Mile 6, begins a relatively long 1.5 Mile, 100’ elevation gain, climb over the bridge that crosses the Milwaukee River. This is a tough climb, made harder if matches were burnt pedaling hard down the prior descent and along that -0.5% to -1.0% grade on the run-in to it. Therefore, an athlete does not want to be in a position where they blow themselves up at the bottom then limp up it. To manage it effectively, gradually increase power throughout the ascent, then, near the crest, max out the power then recover and rest during the cruise down the back side.

The third hill is at Mile 22.5, which is the reverse side of the second hill, but this time, 2 Miles, 100’ of elevation gain. This stretch which includes the false-flat 0.5% to 1.0% grade run-in is made more difficult given that it is so close to the end of the ride. Therefore, it reinforces the importance of managing effort for the first 90% of the ride to, if rode correctly, put the athlete in the rewarding position of being able to pass the folks that overdid it and are bonking. Again, once near the apex, feel free to push the final portion of the climb, for, once over the top, there is opportunity to rest, recover, and stretch out down the backside to Transition 2.


Descending provides the high-volume athlete with an advantage: gravity. Once over the apex of a climb, immediately drop into aero position during the descent and avoid the urge to pedal fast to take advantage of the relative ease and speed on the downhill. Just get as low as possible and recover during gravity’s gift of a free ride. While pedaling hard on the descent will make the bike go slightly faster, the athlete will pay for it at the next bump, hill, or false flat as the legs will wear out. There is no mystery that descending at high speeds can be very dangerous, therefore, use training time to figure out the comfort level one has with descending and recognize that a race is not the time to dabble in seeing how fast one can go. The desired position is low and forward. Staying low will be more aerodynamic and will create a lower center of gravity. Further, to slow down, simply lift the body up as needed to catch air which will slow the bike down and always keep the hands in a position with ready access to the brakes as descending in aero does leave the athlete more vulnerable to gusts, bad road conditions, and/or one’s own anxiety.


Not cornering efficiently and effectively can have a huge impact on the overall race time. Ultimately, look to find a line that allows for riding a manageable speed going into the curve, and not have to hit the brakes. As the athlete approaches the corner, determine how much space there is to work with and account for any obstacles or people that need to be dealt with. Then, determine what speed one is comfortable with executing. If necessary to apply the brakes, do so when the wheels are in a straight line so as not cause the bike to slip out from beneath as the turn is made. In short, avoid pedaling as fast as possible, then slamming on the brakes while cornering which may have sand, wet paint lines, or other debris to deal with. The line to choose involves starting as wide as possible, then working back towards the center of the turn (or further in), then ultimately getting back to the widest part of the turn. In effect, riding in a straight line across the corner. Stay low but get out of the aerobars to have maximal control over the bike. Then, as the turn is made, ensure that the outside leg is straight with the pedal in the low position as an athlete does not want to accidentally hit the inside pedal on the ground and cause the bike to skid out. If there are people around, let them know of your presence and what you are doing. On the approach to the corner, don’t wait until the last minute and scream, “on your left”, but from a reasonable distance, let them know of your presence with a calm but loud voice and do not hesitate to give direction to them if they look to be a timid rider. “I’m coming up on your left very fast. Hold your line please.” Then, upon passing, always say “Thank you” and/or “Hello”.


It goes without saying that, when coming up on folks, to always say “passing on your left” to avoid an accidental incident by someone swinging out to the left, for whatever reason, not realizing there is another athlete there. Be sure to say “Hello” or “Good Morning” to people and, if possible, have a brief conversation, especially, with folks with whom you go back and forth with on the ride. Nothing breaks up the monotony of the ride by just doing a little bit of chatting with people. Further, for faster riders on a multi-loop bike course who are lapping slower riders, do not hesitate to be a bit more demanding and instructive. What often happens is that folks in the back of the pack will tend to bunch up, so as they are being lapped, it is not rude to provide advice, to “please stay right” may save everyone from an accident.


At the end of any ride, it is always key to take the last 5 minutes or so to calm down and get ready to run. As tempting as it into to not get passed during the last few miles of the race, avoid chasing down riders and setting up for a sprint finish. Unless the race is an aqua-bike, it is not a bike race and there still is a run to do. So, increase cadence and work to calm the body down. Have whatever remaining food and/or drink is left. Start stretching out a bit as well for soon the body will be quickly moving from that crunched bike position to a straight up running position.

In summary, smartly and strategically riding the bike course allows athletes to squeeze as much time out of the bike course as possible.

· Settle down for a few minutes after leaving Transition 1

· On each climb, methodically increase wattage as you ascend

· Leverage descents to recover

· Approach corners thoughtfully to carry your speed through them

· Talk to the folks you pass or are passed by on the course

· Execute a mild cool down before reaching Transition 2

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