Triathletes tend to focus on moving in one direction on their bikes: forward. Many believe that turns and downhills only degrade their workouts by forcing them to ease off the pedals and coast. To avoid interruptions, they’ll head to straight roads, steady climbs, or the indoor trainer for every interval session, allowing them to concentrate on turning the pedals as hard as possible. But while the average speed and raw power output generated by these workouts can be good predictors of racing potential, strong cornering and descending skills are critical for the safety and success of athletes at every level of competition. Fortunately, improving your handling skills can be fun and simple, and it is the most time- and cost-effective way to improve your bike split times.
There’s no such thing as a perfectly straight bike course, and a triathlete who can maintain a consistent effort through a winding course has a distinct advantage over the competition. However, most athletes like to sit up and hit the brakes at every corner, sacrificing speed and momentum as they roll through. After losing time on the turn, they also have to spend more energy accelerating back up to race pace. These short bursts can quickly wear out your legs, setting you up for a miserable run. There is one foolproof way to practice and gain confidence in your cornering technique: ride your bike like a little kid. Head to an empty parking lot, or a cul-de-sac with friendly neighbors, and do some loop-di-loops and figure eights. Lean into the turns, learn how your bike responds, and have fun with it. If you’re one of the many type-A triathletes that need some structure to their workouts, set up a practice course using water bottles or cones, à la drivers ed.
With the exception of races along the coast, almost every bike course has a few significant changes in elevation. When the road tilts down, athletes that lack confidence in their handling skills will often ‘ride the brakes’ to descend at a more comfortable rate, losing out on free speed. These same athletes tend to push harder on uphill sections of the course. This pattern of coasting and hammering is much more taxing on the body than a steady, even effort throughout the race. Just like any component of fitness, the best way to improve your descending skills is through practice, practice, and more practice. Triathletes and cyclists often ride hard up big hills to get a solid workout, but it can be equally effective to practice riding hard down those hills. Next time you see hill repeats on your training schedule, try to improve your times both ascending and descending with each subsequent interval. Be safe, but try to get a little outside your comfort zone on the downhill — just as you would during a hard uphill interval. Shoot for the ‘apex’ — or geometric center — of every corner, by swinging towards the center of the road during the approach (like a semitrailer making a wide right turn). For really tight turns, keep your inside foot at 12 o’clock and put pressure on your outside foot and inside hand. Keep your eyes fixed on the exit of the corner, and you’ll soon be making the leaderboards for your first downhill Strava segment.
Many bike courses feature short sections of rough concrete, gravel, or even grass and dirt, particularly near the transition area. It’s common to see riders easing up or slowing down on these parts of the course, tentative about the surface below them. However, this is often the worst possible strategy. Braking on loose terrain can cause wheels to slide, and riding slowly makes it more difficult to balance. Being overly cautious could potentially end your race before you’ve even broken a sweat. When the road gets dicey, try to avoid tapping your brakes. Triathletes are often extremely cautious with their bikes — and rightly so, given how expensive a nice TT setup can be — yet many don’t realize that these machines are built to handle a few bumps in the road. Ride with confidence over any sketchy terrain, and shoot for the smoothest path when it comes to gravel or dirt. As long as a rough section is relatively straight, maintain momentum as you approach and cruise straight on through. In no time at all you’ll be quite literally leaving your competition in the dust.
One surefire way to improve all of these bike handling techniques is to head off-road. If you own a mountain or cyclocross bike, take it to some local trails for one of your easier rides. You don’t need a full suspension, all-mountain rig, or even clipless pedals — anything with knobby tires and a sturdy frame will do. Practice riding on angled terrain and a variety of surfaces, and see how quickly (and safely) you can navigate sharp turns. At the very least, you’ll pick up some rad new lingo and finally figure out what it means to ’shred the gnar’ or ‘rail a berm’.
Will Krakow is a mathematician with a writing problem from Chapel Hill, NC. He qualified for the 2017 70.3 World Championships (but gave up his spot to attend Oktoberfest), owns a 12:09 beer mile PR, and has won the local group ride sprint exactly one time. In his spare time, he enjoys long runs on the beach and candlelit trainer sessions.