Toolbox: Efficiency Part 2

Last month I discussed how to avoid wasting energy by staying relaxed both physically and mentally and by maintaining a smooth efficient pedal stroke. This month, I’ll cover other ways to conserve energy such as smart pack riding, efficient training, and aerodynamics.

Every cyclist has a finite amount of energy to expend during the course of a day and how you allot that energy can make a huge difference in the success of your cycling exploits. This is the macro aspect of efficiency and economics as applied to cycling, and how you choose to play out your deck of cards (i.e., watts) will have a big influence on your ultimate success.

Efficiency in the Pack
Most cyclists know that they save energy by riding behind another rider, but very few understand the nuances of drafting and the subtleties of positioning when riding in the pack. One of the reasons that even after years and years many cyclists never pick up on these things is because it is not always essential for a recreational rider to conserve a watt here and a heart beat there to get to the end of their rides.

However, pro riders quickly learn that something as simple as hitting the brakes for a fraction of a second too long once or twice in a hard criterium can mean the difference between taking home some money and going off the back. Take a tip from the pros and practice these minute adjustments to save energy on your next ride.

1) Get comfortable drafting at 6 inches rather than 12 inches. This will depend on road conditions, experience of the lead rider and your own ability to stay relaxed, but the extra draft could add up to huge savings over the course of a ride. In addition, keep in mind that the third rider in a pace line has a slight aerodynamic advantage over the second rider.

The third and fourth riders here have an aerodynamic advantage over the second rider. Those gaps between our wheels are way too big and you really feel it at the high speeds of a team pursuit (but we managed to win anyway).

2) Learn to echelon. This is a difficult skill to practice and learn unless you have a few like-minded training partners and a safe section of road. However, this is probably the biggest potential weakness in riding ability in most cyclists, such that even mild crosswinds can blow a race apart. I learned this the hard way, riding in the Irish Milk Ras. Anyone who has hung on for dear life, strung out single file in the gutter while the first 10 riders in the group comfortably take turns spreading out across the road knows what a big difference this makes.

3) Always be aware of which direction the wind is coming from. I’ve seen even pros struggle up the inside of the pack against a cross wind when they could easily move up on the other side, behind the protection of the peloton. This also applies to moving the other way. Say you go off the front and get caught. Don’t move out of the way to let the pack go by. Make them go around you into the wind so that you can catch their draft, recover and get back in before they are gone.

4) Whenever possible, stay off the brakes. It took a certain amount of effort to get up to your current speed. When you hit the brakes, you are throwing all that effort away and starting over as you work to get back to speed. It’s a fine art, but learn to position yourself on the road and in the pack so that you don’t get caught behind slow riders or decelerations. Use subtle changes in body position to adjust your wind resistance and therefore your speed instead. Practice cornering so that you can take as much speed as possible in and then out of the turn.

5) In a pace line, don’t wait for the rider in front to pull off before you begin to accelerate through. Use the slingshot effect to subtly accelerate into the draft of the lead rider just as he is pulling off so that you don’t have to work as hard to adjust to the sudden increase in wind resistance. This is a subtle art, as you also don’t want to accelerate so much that your speed increases and disrupts the whole rhythm of the paceline.

6) In large packs whether on a group ride or in a race, stay near the front. Tiny changes in speed at the front can translate into squealing brakes and then massive accelerations by the time they reach the back. This is known as the accordion effect.

7) Practice keeping your road speed consistent. This means sometimes adjusting your power output for small rollers and pitch changes. Maintain your momentum over power climbs by shifting up, taking a few pedal strokes out of the saddle and then shifting up again as you go over the top. The idea is to keep your speed up but prevent your cadence from going too high which would cause a spike in heart rate.

8) Become efficient riding in an aerodynamic position. If you do all your training on the tops, don’t expect to be able to suddenly ride smoothly in the drops. Same idea with adapting and training in your time trial position. Your muscles need to adjust to that position so work on flexibility and do at least some of your training in the drops. At the same time, work on your core strength so that you can maintain a low aero position and also produce power while in that position. Experiment with your power meter to find the most aerodynamically efficient position. Also, don’t waste energy staying in the drops on climbs where aerodynamics don’t play a big role. Learn to sit upright so that you are able to take the maximum amount of air into your lungs when you really need it.

Training Efficiency
Without a doubt, the most precious commodity most cyclists have is time. Unless you get paid to ride, you probably have one or two other things on your daily schedule besides training. Very often I hear cyclists lament the fact that they don’t have enough free time to hire a coach and get on a real training program. Of course my response is that the less time they have to train, the more crucial it is that they follow a smart training program to ensure that they are getting the most out of their limited riding time.

Many cyclists believe that since they only have a few precious hours each week to train, they need to get the most out of that time by hammering every minute of every ride. The idea seems to be that they can make up for a lack of base and endurance by increasing intensity. This is a bad idea for too many reasons to list here. Riders who employ this all or nothing training strategy will very quickly reach a plateau and will most likely begin to experience signs of overtraining. Even with a limited amount of time, it is essential to strike a balance between recovery, intensity and endurance.

The best thing you can do to improve your training efficiency is to hire a reputable coach. Next up is to follow a strong training program out of a book or on a website like Training Peaks. At the very least, keep a training log and make sure that every 3 or 4 weeks you give yourself a break. Look back at your logs once in a while and see if you can find markers that might help you tweak and refine your training to make sure your fitness is progressing as quickly as possible. Other ways to get the most out of your rides is to invest in a power meter to fine tune your zone or to use PowerCranks which make every pedal stroke count for two (approximately).

Another way to ensure that you get the most out of your workouts is to pay attention to your nutrition, especially during and immediately following your rides. On the bike, keep your system topped off with a drink such as Accelerade which combines sugar to keep your energy stores up and protein to prevent muscle break down. Afterwards, some simple sugars and protein in a ratio of 4:1 has been proven to be the most effective recipe for speeding recovery. If you find yourself running off to the office as soon as you step out of the shower, simplify things with an Endurox R4 recovery shake which has the proper ratio of protein to carbs.

Put It All Together
Hopefully you’ve picked up a few tips that might help you in your pursuit of cycling excellence. Keep in mind, it’s not just racers and exercise fanatics who can benefit from these tips. In my experience as a coach, the best way to keep riders interested in cycling and excited about getting on their bikes each day is to set goals and then strive to reach them. Although not everyone has that competitive edge, we all enjoy riding fast, climbing gracefully and getting home feeling tired but not destroyed. Paying a little attention to the small things can make a significant improvement, not just in your performance but in your enjoyment of the sport.

About Josh:
Josh Horowitz is a USCF Certified coach and an active Category 1 racer. For more information about his coaching services and any coaching questions you may have, check out his website at

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