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Complete Cyclist 2: Identify Your Weaknesses

In Part 1 of this series, we defined many elements of being a successful athlete and called them the Essential Ingredients.” Now that those elements have been presented, we can address the other side of the equation; identifying your weaknesses or “limiters.”

One certainty is that every athlete has their own strengths and weaknesses. The reasons for this can be physiological, psychological, and/or some other issue. In athletics as in other areas of life, it’s important to objectively assess yourself and determine which key limiters are preventing you from accomplishing your goals. There is a basic truth that results from this assessment; race your strengths and train your weaknesses. While it’s very easy to work on the things we are good at and enjoy, it takes a disciplined and determined athlete to work on the things that are weaknesses, and, by definition, less fun.

Rules of the Road
Before we start this discussion on how to identify your weaknesses, let’s clarify a few key points that will allow you to gain the most benefit from these articles:

• Determining your limiters must be done within your peer group or race category. It’s unfair for a Cat 4 to compare themselves to what happens in a mixed group ride with many different levels of cyclists present. You have earned the right to compete in your category, so in theory you should use that group of riders to help gauge your weaknesses.

• You have a pretty good idea of your anaerobic (a.k.a. your lactate or ventilatory) threshold through either performance or field testing. Knowing this key piece of data will help identify key limiters and address them.

• You must have a goal. There are many things to work on in the sport of cycling because of the different types of racing: road races, criteriums, time trials and stage races. Throw different types of terrain and weather into the mix and the possibilities become rather complex. Having a realistic goal to address is vital, as there is only so much time you can dedicate to improving weaknesses.

• Many athletes’ weaknesses are made up of multiple limiters. Very rarely does an athlete lack just one key component. Use your self assessment skills to determine which essential ingredients you most need to improve.

• Tactics – Bike racing involves a great deal of both individual and team tactics. Theoretically, tactics could be part of every limiter that needs to be addressed. Tactics are not just used for situations to help you win, but situations to help you survive. For example, imagine you are not a big powerful Paris-Roubaix type rider that excels in windy conditions. Making a conscious effort to go to the front part of a group as you enter a blowing cross wind section and working hard for a few minutes to be part of a rotating echelon would prevent you from being dropped had you sat back in the middle or back of the peloton. This type of tactic helps you overcome your limiter.

Limiter Examples
As bike racers, the place to start identifying limiters should be in relation to specific types of races. There are, of course, many limiters to consider. Let’s look at a few of the more common ones in this first article:

Issue #1- A difficult time towards the latter part of longer road races:
You start the race feeling great. Tactically, you ride smart and don’t expend too much unnecessary energy. You then begin to fatigue and fade fast! You really don’t do much work during the race, but when you need to put in the intense efforts at the critical moments, your legs don’t respond.

Needs: The main idea during a bike race (other than winning) is to prevent yourself from dipping into your carbohydrate stores (anaerobic power) and primarily use fat to create energy (higher level of aerobic capacity.) If you are fading during longer road races, chances are you lack the proper aerobic capacity training and necessary endurance base. Each level of the sport requires a certain amount of volume on the bike per week, month, etc. Volume at relatively low intensity is a prime ingredient of your endurance base. It is also a primary building block for improving your power at threshold and will help you recover from harder anaerobic efforts. As an added bonus, it’s also one of the best ways to burn fat and lose weight on the bike. If you do have a good endurance base, another area to look at is your nutrition, both on and off the bike.

Issue #2 –Shorter, steeper repetitive hills destroy you quickly:
In Northern California, locals are familiar with Nevada City and Cat’s Hill criteriums which require multiple short intense efforts on shorter climbs. Right from the start of the races, you are required to produce massive spikes of power with little recovery. A lot of road races have the same type of profile with repeated short steep climbs on sections of the course.

Needs: Shorter, steep hills require repeated anaerobic power and lactic tolerance training. The anaerobic power is addressed with efforts that are well above threshold with longer recovery periods while lactic tolerance workouts address high intensity efforts while paying attention to recovery, teaching the body to clear blood lactate more efficiently. As always, having a good endurance base to be successful with these courses is essential. A solid endurance base will help facilitate recovery. Also, another area to address is your warm up and whether you are preparing your body adequately for the hard work which begins immediately.

Issue #3 – You can’t stay with the lead group on longer sustained climbs:
You find yourself hanging on for dear life giving everything you have just to stay with the “climbers.” A related scenario is that you see yourself as a good climber, but the pace is just too fast to sustain.

Needs: There are many ingredients to becoming a good climber. First, most climbing can be improved dramatically by focusing on improving overall fitness and addressing technical issues like cadence and climbing style. Too often athletes stereotype themselves and think of climbing in regards to riders like Leonardo Piepoli (2007 Giro mountain jersey points winner) with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 17.6! The keys for becoming a successful climber are a lot of work at and slightly under lactate threshold and smaller amounts of work just slightly above lactate threshold. Being strong mentally is vital, with a capacity for suffering. Sometimes, it’s best to think of the goal to just “get by” and make it over the top with the lead group. Tactics can play a huge role in doing that. Simply by starting climbs near the front and allowing yourself to slowly slip back, while keeping in touch with the group can save vital seconds every time up the climb and may just be enough to get you to the line with a chance for the win. In other words, just because you don’t consider yourself a “climber”, doesn’t mean you still can’t win races with longer hills as part of the course.

Use your power to weight ratio (watts/kilo) at threshold as a guide for measuring improvement. There are only two ways to increase this all important number: lose weight and gain power. For example, if you weigh 70 kilos and push 280 watts at threshold, this equals a watts/kilo of 4.0. If you lose 2 kilos (4.4 lbs.) and increase power at threshold to 295w, watts per kilo is now 4.3 (~8%.) This is a significant improvement and can make you a much more competitive rider in your category.


Try to keep things simple in terms of addressing your weaknesses. Since training is an inexact science, trying to do too many different types of workouts can be detrimental. Identify the essential components that will allow you to perform well in a variety of events.

Do not take a “stereotyped” approach where you may say, “I am a strong climber, so I will only do climbing races and not worry about other races that don’t fit my strengths.” You must work on your weaknesses, especially in the sport of cycling, because it will allow your strengths to shine even more. The sign of a true competitor is that they will always look for opportunities to improve themselves. Nothing beats winning races that you are not “supposed” to win.

Next article we will continue to address more limiters and what you can do to improve them.

Ride safe! Ride strong!

About Bruce
Bruce Hendler created AthletiCamps to provide cycling specific coaching and training to athletes and cyclists of all levels. Find out more at www.athleticamps.com

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