Toolbox Bookshelf: Cycling Science
Having spent the better part of the last 30+ years engrossed in cycling, I know many of the book titles on offer and always look forward to each season’s new offerings. Few are authoritative in the manner of Human Kinetics’ recently published Cycling Science by Dr. Stephen Cheung and Dr. Mikel Zabala.
First a qualifier – Stephen Cheung is my editor here at PEZ, and over the last 9+ years has become a friend, albeit a distant one as we’ve never actually met in person. He is also a respected researcher in environmental physiology at Brock University in Canada, with a highly regarded pedigree of published articles.
You read. You read a lot I’m guessing, and that likely includes articles, stories and books about cycling performance. I know this because you are reading this now, but like all good cycling folks, you seek information from a wide array of sources. Me too…
As a professional coach for over 20 years, I also know some of the factors that impact and influence a rider’s development, yet I still yearn for those rare nuggets of information that provide insight for myself, and more importantly relevant, research-based answers for my clients. Hard to find is a current, research based reference work that offers insight across such a wide spectrum of “how to train.”
With Cycling Science, Cheung and Zabala, lead sport scientist for the Movistar pro team, bring together the expertise of over 43 well respected leaders in their fields into an essential reference and reading material for those who are always on the hunt for knowledge.
Cheung and Zabala are less pure “authors” than they are really good editors and wranglers. Yes, both contributed content to the book; Dr. Cheung via chapters on “Cycling Physiology and Genetics” (Chapter 2) and “Dealing With Heat Stress” (Chapter 11), while Dr. Zabala tackled the difficult subject of “Doping’s Dark Past and A New Cycling Era” in chapter 18. But this is where being well respected researchers comes in pretty handy. Not only do they have an enviable rolodex of contacts to help point them in the right direction, they also have the professional reputations, having authored hundred of papers between them, that those contacts actually return the call and help out!
This is where Cycling Science truly shines. The breadth of assembled talent is truly remarkable. The “About the Contributors” section runs to eleven pages itself, while the all important (to the scientific nerd-brain at least) “references” section runs 38 pages of cited research. That’s over 900 of the most relevant studies and papers across the spectrum of cycling performance from the thousands of available references in each discipline, not to mention each contributor’s own experience and knowledge, to put the most current thinking at your fingertips. It is less of a sit-down-and-read-cover-to-cover book, than a near encyclopedic reference guide for the latest in cycling performance.
The book is broken into nine core areas and forty chapters over its 500 or so pages. The organization of the core areas is pretty logical starting with “The Cyclist” in part one (chapters 1 and 2) – inclusive of the cyclists physique, cycling physiology and genetics, before moving on to “The Bike” for part two (chapters 3 – 5), which delves into design, materials, and geometry before finishing off with an interesting look at Saddle Biomechanics by Daniel Schade in Chapter 5.
Dr. Mikel Zabala is a professor at the University of Granada, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Science and Cycling and the lead sport scientist for the Movistar Pro Team.
The section on “The Human-Machine Interface” (part III) runs five chapters and nearly fifty pages including many of the touchstone topics such as “The Biomechanics of Cycling” by Dr. Rodrigo Rico Bini (co-editor of “Biomechanics of Cycling” published in 2014), “Bike Fit and Body Positioning” by Todd Carver (a founder of the Retul system), and “The Aerodynamic Rider” by Dr. Andy Froncioni (lead aerodynamicist for Alphamantis Technologies with 12 aero-test centers Worldwide).
The Cycling Environment (Part IV), Nutrition and Ergonomics (Part V), and Cycling Health (Part VI) seek to further explore other individual factors that influence performance. Heat Stress (Chapter 11), Hydration (Chapter 17) and Fatigue and Overtraining (Chapter 21) serve as excellent references and knowledge bases as the coach or athlete moves towards the final few sections on Training Development and Assessment (Part VII), Preparing to Race (Part VIII) and finally Racing Your Bike (Part IX).
Stephen Cheung’s cycling science creds needs no introduction to readers of Pez. He is also an award-winning scientist at Brock University, with >100 peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters to his name, along with the leading textbook in his field of environmental physiology. He co-authored “Cutting-Edge Cycling” with Hunter Allen in 2012.
Ch.5 – Saddle Biomechanics
As an example of the detailed yet accessible level of writing and science, let’s take a skim through the chapter on saddle biomechanics by Daniel Schade of the cycling biomechanics company gebioMized, based in Germany and consultant to numerous WorldTour teams.
Schade lays out the specifics of pelvic anatomy as the starting point to a larger discussion of relevant research on saddle discomforts, force distribution per contact point and the rising science of measuring and interpreting the factors influencing the saddle contact point. These include saddle type and saddle height, which are most commonly referenced with regard to comfort, but also the fore- aft position, saddle tilt, and a handy little section on selecting appropriate cycling shorts for your anatomy.
From a coaching perspective I found the section on discipline specific differences really useful; it lays out research by Bini, Hume and Croft in 2014 that showed significant differences in back angle and pelvic alignment between road, mountain and triathletes, but also their relative pressure points, down to specific measurements. For example, holding the hoods on a road bike tends to strain the middle part of the saddle, with the load distributed almost evenly between the pubis and the sit bones (49% and 51% respectively). The triathlon position, by comparison, heavily weights the front of the saddle, and by extension the pubis (73%), versus the sit bones (27%).
User-friendly and Accessible
No, we don’t have the space to review every section and chapter. At 490 pages, before references, it is simply too vast. What I can give you is a look at how the book is organized in a manner that makes it easy to use and intuitive. Perhaps my favorite part is the “Applying The Science” summary on offer at the end of each chapter. This is like a Clif-notes version of the information and is, quixotically, a great starting point when using the book as a handy desk-reference.
Take Chapter 10 on Pedaling Technique and Technology. Three authors, Thomas Korff, Marco Arkestijn, and Paul Barratt, each with a different expertise; mechanical determinants of maximal and sub-maximal performance, muscle activation & force production and the energy cost of cycling, and research and development of cycling technologies with British Cycling respectively, spend their 15 pages discussing not just the mechanical and physiological components of pedaling in depth via topics like “Pedal Power, Metabolic Energy Consumption and Efficiency,” “Bilateral Symmetry” and others but also the technologies available, the limitations of these technologies for analysis, and an overarching look at the basic mechanical and scientific principles you need to know.
With the “Applying the Science” summary, the authors then wrap up current evidence for and against specifically training/altering the pedal stroke to fit an idealized optimum.
Cycling Science is a well thought out and presented treatise on the current state of performance training. Covering the whole of the performance envelope from athlete to equipment, research to race tactics, the book is an easy to use reference piece that borders on the encyclopedic. Indeed, each chapter throughout the book mixes peer reviewed research with the authors own experience and generally accepted methodologies to move from general to specific in much the same way an athletes training plan is built from the foundational base period into the specifics of higher intensity work leading to the event. Each chapter concludes with “Applying the Science” as a defacto summary of the learning leading to real world applications. To that end, Cycling Science will be my desk reference of choice, at least until Cheung and Zabala undertake their next project!
Stephen S Cheung, PhD and Mikel Zabala, PhD
Human Kinetics, 2017