10 Ways to Improve Cycling Efficiency
1. Bike Fitting
The various elements of a proper bike fit are essential for your riding efficiency and comfort. See someone locally if possible to set up your bike and ask you the right questions throughout the process. You will also have the opportunity for future fine-tuning if necessary.
- Retül Bike Fitters are global.
- You may be interested in reading Bike Fit by Phil Burt.
- Check this video from GTN.
2. Economise Your Effort
Relax your upper body to avoid tension that can lead to fatigue, and avoid wasted energy expenditure. Check your bike fit is optimal and, as you ride, think about relaxing your shoulders, elbows and hands. Staying light will improve bike handling and avoid over-corrections.
3. Optimise Hand Position
Hand position depends on the type of rider, physiology, preference, bike and route. As a cyclist, you may have a favourite position that provides optimal comfort and efficiency. This is a good thing. However, switching hand positions every so often, can prevent stiffness and help you generate more power in certain situations.
Hoods are good for when you need to get out of the saddle, riding in rolling hills or in a group. Tops help you open up your chest to get more air in and sit back when riding up long climbs. Drops and aerobars help you optimise your aerodynamic efficiency for long hard racing efforts.
4. Gearing Techniques
Anticipating optimal gearing is a skill that will save wasted energy; it takes practice and experience. New cyclists sometimes wait too long to shift when approaching a climb. This can result in the chain coming under load, risking the chain coming off or making it very hard to shift. Shifting early helps you maintain your optimal cadence and momentum.
Riding a long and hilly route requires careful pacing. There’s nothing worse than running out of gears when your legs are already tired. This causes muscle micro-trauma and lactate build-up, both contributing significantly to overall fatigue. To help, set your bike up with easier gears so that you can ride at your normal cadence up the hills and at an appropriate power output. If you have a 53/39 chainring on the front, you will need a 27, 28 or even 32 or 36–tooth sprocket on the back. If you have a 50/34 chainring on the front, you might still want the option of a 28 or 32-tooth sprocket on the back. Your legs will thank you for it.
5. Cadence v Big Gear
Cadence, combined with your gear choice, will determine your power output. To increase your power, you can use a higher cadence or bigger gear; which is better?
This can somewhat depend on the type of cyclist you are, your physique and strength. Generally, choosing to pedal faster rather than grind a big gear is better. There are a few reasons for this:
- Reduces stress on leg muscles.
- Allows you to ride for longer before exhaustion.
- Keeps your legs fresher for subsequent training.
- Increases stress on your cardiovascular system and therefore increases fitness.
- It is quicker to improve by learning to pedal fast than develop the musculature for pushing big gears.
Choosing the right cadence is the first step, and once you are comfortable at that, you can work to progressively improve your strength (use harder gears) at that cadence.
6. What Cadence to Target?
85-90 rpm is ideal for many riders. If you are new to cycling you may need to build to this, don't expect too much at the start. It may not be perfect for you, anyway, but it should be close. Learning to select the best gears to optimise your effort while holding your target cadence can take time. Be patient though, it will happen, and then you will be riding efficiently and effectively.
7. More on Pedalling
Check the video below from GTN for more on how to pedal efficiency.
8. Power to Weight Ratio
The most significant determinant of success when riding in the hills is your power to weight ratio. When it comes to your power to weight ratio, you can improve your chances of success in two ways:
- Gradually improve your sustainable power output by intelligent, progressive training over a period of several months
- Reduce total bike and rider weight
The first half of that ratio is your cycle power output, or how hard and fast you can pedal, measured by an FTP test. Rides within Phil's plans are structured to build endurance, strength and power with a blend of specific and targeted rides.
The second half of that ratio is the combined weight of you, your bike, your clothes/shoes and anything you’re carrying (like bottles).
You also need to keep on top of your nutrition. We would recommend consuming around 20g of carbohydrate per 20-25 minutes. This is the equivalent to one energy gel. Stay hydrated with water and energy drinks (some find energy drinks sickly when combined with gels, sweets and bars). SaltStick salt tablets (1 or 2 per hour) are useful if you're sweating a lot, to aid hydration.
Check Phil's latest blog on this topic: Cycling Aerodynamics Time Savings
As well as optimising your power, weight, gearing and nutrition, practising how you use these components is crucial.
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