cycling · training · triathalon

Unsolicited advice to triathletes who are reluctant cyclists

I’m thinking here of Caitlin, from Fit and Feminist (though it sounds like she’s learned to love the bike a bit at least) and this blog’s Tracy. But they’re not alone. I’ve met a few triathletes, even some very fast ones, who are at best reluctant cyclists.

I met a half iron triathlete out on the bike last week and I was doing my usual thing of raving about how much I love fall riding. In short: I’m fit, it’s cooler, no races, and pretty colours.

She whispered, “I have a secret. I kind of hate cycling.”

Uh oh.

Here are my two cents for the triathlete who is a reluctant cyclist.

Want to get faster? Want to learn to love your bike?

Ride.

Ride lots.

Ride as late into the fall as your gear and temperament allows. Ride as early in the spring as you can manage. Buy cold weather cycling clothes and in the polite version of the standard cycling saying, toughen up.

Find your inner Jens.

More Jens.

And more.

(Sorry. I have a bit of a Jens crush, like most other women in the world who ride road bikes. Actually like most other people in the world with road bikes. Men love Jens too.)

Ride long and easy some of the time. Ride hard and fast other times. Learn to suffer and like it.

Ride hills, ride intervals, ride into the countryside and drink coffee with friends.

Ride with slow friends. Best of all, ride with the fastest people you know willing to have you along.

Ride your bike.

It’s that simple and that hard.

Time spent running/training volume is the biggest single predictor of marathon success , so too cycling is all about time on the bike.

Nothing beats it.

I know triathletes aren’t just cyclists. You also run and swim. I get that.

But if you’re already a fast swimmer or a fast runner, go into maintenance mode with swimming and/or running. The biggest place you can make gains and improve your overall time is on the bike.

And yes, over the worst of the winter, you can ride a trainer. You can take spin classes. You can use rollers. You can crosstrain. Here’s seven options.

But, in my experience, the best you can manage over the winter is maintaining bike fitness, not building it.

You want to end the fall on a high note. It’s downhill from there.

Just like running on a treadmill doesn’t compare to road miles, so too the trainer is always second best to riding. Yes, it’s good for intervals. Just like the treadmill. But that might be its only advantage.

I know. It’s not what you want to hear. But to get faster on your bike, you have to ride your bike. Lots.

Maybe you’ll even come to love it. I hope so.

See you out there on the road!

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18 thoughts on “Unsolicited advice to triathletes who are reluctant cyclists

  1. It’s like you know me. Tri season is over but I’ll be riding outside until there is snow on the ground whether I like it or not. Channelling The Jensie!

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  2. I’m a causal rider. I just have a clunky old Cruiser that I love, but I am absolutely planning on riding it as late in the year as I can. (In fact, it is on my car rack right now, as I’m planning on heading out later today.) But even I, who has no plans of ever racing, found this inspiring. Great post!

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  3. I think that depending on your strengths, you can build some bike fitness over the winter as long as your trainer sessions are really focused. Spinervals (http://www.spinervals.com/) and other companies make bike- and tri-specific videos for use on the trainer (disclosure: I’m in the Team VF fitness series Spinerval). They have ones focused on Aerobic Base Building, Strength/hill climbing, aerobic threshold, pedaling technique, etc.

    These kind of workouts, IMO, are WAY better training than most spinning classes, which tend to be focused on fat burning or dancing (with the exception of those led by cyclists). This is a great way to be focused over the winter, and I find it MUCH easier to push myself with these rather than trying to do it on my own or from a paper workout while watching a movie or TV. It goes much faster–you just do what you’re told and pay attention to cadence or heart rate. It’s hard enough to be engaging and you get a great workout. Time flies.

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      1. I’m looking forward to hearing about it!

        My gym is going to have a 90 minute spin class led by a local cyclist/triathlete. I need to spend some quality time on the trainer first, but I hope to start doing those, too.

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  4. People gravitate to what they’re naturally good at. Some people are naturally good on the bike; others, not so much. It takes a long time to change your actual “type” – to become good and actually right for an activity you have no natural affinity for. So ya – the “non-naturals” have to ride alot. To be good, everyone has to ride alot. But people who are not naturally good at it have to actually change themselves – their very type, in ways that people who are naturals at it just don’t. To understand it, all you have to do is to think of some activity you just absolutely suck at (I don’t know – ballet; gymnastics; it’ll be different for everybody), and think of how you’d actually have to change your body-type and maybe other things about yourself, to have any chance of succeeding. Only then will you get just how much work it is for the non-naturals.

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  5. And just to be absolutely clear, I’m in awe of people who can run, bike, and swim those distances. Biking 40 km fast? Easy. Running 10 km after that? Yikes. And don’t get me started on the swim. A year of swim training and I was the anchor person for the slow lane. I do know what it’s like to be seemingly naturally slow at something. That’s me in water.

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    1. I couldn’t complete a triathlon right now if my life depended on it! I’m really just saying making me into, say, a gymnast might prove…. difficult. So turning some people into cyclists could be similarly difficult.

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      1. Right. Hence, the advice is directed at people committed to cycling-=triathletes! Love it or hate, it’s the middle bit of a triathlon. Even if you hate it you want it over fast and you want to improve your time. You could just knuckle down and ride even though you hate it. But in my experience, people don’t do things they don’t like.

        I’d like it if I could just get faster.

        Then, ride.

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  6. Toy’re right, of course, Sam. It’s their choice to participate in triathlons, after all. Just showing a little sympathy for people who have to apply themselves so hard for something they’re really not built for. Turning me into a gymnast would be painstaking – not only for me, but for those who have the misfortune of having to train me! 🙂

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  7. I get that you’re trying to be encouraging but the thought that I can only maintain over the winter and make no gains is quite discouraging. I could not ride AT ALL over the winter and still be able to do what I do now (at least it feels that way, with my average over any distance at about 20-21 km). Anyway, as I did when I was riding my motorbike and trying to decide whether to stick with it (I didn’t), I’m going to give it one more season where I make an honest effort to ride enough to experience gains. If I STILL don’t like it then I may have to re-think triathlon altogether. I realize it’s hard to understand how someone might love triathlon but not love riding, but there it is. That’s me. Love triathlon. Want to get faster on my bike. Not loving the bike.

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    1. I really think that if you have a trainer and use some structured bike-oriented spinning videos (or audio tracks) you could get much stronger/faster. For me, it’s MUCH easier to do a focused, productive workout inside than it is outside. You don’t have to worry about bike handling, obstacles, other cyclists, cars, weather–it’s just you and the work.

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  8. And I think it’s likely not true for beginners. I keep needing to remind myself that you, Tracy, haven’t been out on your bike a dozen times. Train two or three times a week consistently and you’ll see progress.

    For me, I know I never work as hard on a trainer as I do trying to catch someone ahead of me out on the road or trying to hang on to someone’s wheel. But that’s me.

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  9. Your advice is similar to the advice I’ve gotten from a lot of people, which is that TITS is the most important thing about getting better on the bike. I’m working on it and trying to implement it in my life, and it’s definitely working. It’s helped that I’ve recently been able to ride on a wider variety of courses – courses with more hills and turns – which makes it more interesting than the flat and straight courses I’m used to. I also got a different saddle that is more in line with my specific needs and that has made a WORLD of difference.

    I know I have a long ways to go but I feel like I’ve come a long way in just the past four months alone. I’m optimistic that it will only become more enjoyable the more I ride.

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