We all want to get better, faster, and leaner, but the work involved can seem overwhelming—unless you take it one step at a time. Here are small changes that add up to big results. – By Tori Bortman
Oiling your chain at least once a week (at minimum, every 160km) will not only make you faster due to reduced resistance on your drivetrain, but also extend the life of your chain, cassette, chainrings, and derailleurs—saving you money. Don’t forget: Wipe off all excess oil after you apply it to the chain. The goal is to get oil on the inside of the links, where metal meets metal, not coat the outside, which will attract road grit.
Brake It Up
When aluminum rusts, it’s actually a good thing—the oxidisation forms a hard, protective coating. But braking creates friction, and heat from that friction breaks down the oxide on your aluminum rims, leaving behind a black film that compromises stopping power. The result? You pull on the brakes harder, further compromising the rims. There’s a fix: Wipe your rims clean with a dry cloth and some rubbing alcohol when you oil your chain, and you’ll almost double your braking power and rim life.
It’s simple: If you want to pile on some speed, you have to pedal either harder or faster (or both). Go for pedaling faster. Merely adding 10 rpm (rotations per minute) to your cadence will increase your endurance, says Russell Cree, a coach who owns Portland, Oregon-based Upper Echelon Fitness. “As a general rule,” he says, “pedaling faster is more efficient.” And when you put less force into the pedals you don’t fatigue as quickly, so you’re able to maintain the same power output for a longer period of time. A solid goal is 90 to 110 rpm on flat roads, 70 to 90 on hills.
Take to the Hills
Add one new climb each month to your rides, and you’ll build power and confidence on hills. Find new slopes that vary in size and pitch—short and steep, long with various grades, and so on. If you’re geographically limited to flatlands, mix a hill-interval workout into your rides each month.
To boost your skills, temporarily switch to flat pedals on your mountain bike. They will help you use your whole body for balance, speed, strength, and handling, instead of depending mainly on your legs to manipulate the bike. The swap will also force you to build core and upper-body strength, which will translate on clipped-in rides. Practicing front- and rear-wheel lifts with flat pedals on your mountain bike can help you quickly avoid unexpected road debris—and hop a curb in an emergency.
Seek Out an Expert
Fresh eyes can tell you volumes about your weak spots—especially when they belong to a coach. You may not be at the point where you need full-time help, but even a one-off session with a professional—like at a group clinic—can help you identify flaws in your form or training. Often local clubs or shops offer such clinics at the beginning of the riding season.
Rev the Engines
Shave kilograms by boosting your metabolism first thing in the morning. “One of the top things you can do is to start your day with protein for breakfast, because that flips on your metabolic engine,” says Julie Hunter, founder of Flourish, an exercise and nutrition consulting business. Try one cup nonfat plain Greek yogurt with two tablespoons chopped raw walnuts, 1/4 cup fresh berries, two tablespoons honey, and a dash of cinnamon. Then add a quick strength workout: Do as many rounds of three push-ups, 10 sit-ups, and 15 squats as you can in 15 minutes.
One Less Beer
Dropping one brew out of your postride diet is a bigger step toward getting lean and fit than you might realise. Think of it this way: “One beer equates to roughly 6.5km on your bike,” says Hunter. “Those calories add up fast.”
Go to Bed Hungry
Or at least not with a full stomach. Finish eating two hours before you turn in, Hunter says. This allows your body to digest and normalise your blood-sugar levels, which among other things will aid in muscle recovery and help you sleep better. Remember: Sleep is a performance enhancer.
Pick a Battle
Find your Achilles’ heel on the bike and spend a season focused on fixing that one flaw. Steep, twisting descents get you uptight? You aren’t able to hold your line when you grab for your bottle? You find yourself braking in fast corners? Concentrating on one element of your technique keeps you engaged on long rides and can bring small victories that mean big payoffs later.
Come Full Circle
Train your legs to use more of the pedal stroke, and you’ll become a more efficient cyclist, which means you’ll go farther and faster with the same effort. “A full stroke uses a lot of muscles when done correctly: glutes, hamstrings, quads, psoas, calves—nearly all the muscles in your legs,” Cree says. Many beginners focus only on the downstroke. “That will keep you upright and propel you forward, but it’s far from efficient,” he says. During rides, incorporate Cree’s pedal-stroke intervals, below.
• Do one minute focusing on both the front and back parts of the pedal stroke. Repeat this five times.
• Then for 30 seconds do slow-rpm drills at 50 to 60 rpm, focusing on keeping tension on the pedals throughout the 360-degree rotation. Repeat that five times.
• Finally, do 30 seconds of fast pedaling, again maintaining tension on the entire stroke, while keeping good form: no rocking or bouncing.
Train Your Mind
Rides, like life, are sometimes uncomfortable. You can train yourself to endure hardship better by making a point of going out for a ride when the weather is lousy. Nervous about wet roads? Pedal in the rain to learn how to handle them. Hate the wind? Ride on blustery days to explore ways to work with it. By facing the enemies you know, you’ll build the mental agility to face the ones you don’t expect—such as mechanicals, getting lost, and bonking.
Eat Real Food
Energy bars are useful, but you can dial in your unique caloric needs (and save money) by making them yourself. “Making your own power bar is a simple and tasty way to get the exact ingredients and nutrients you’re looking for,” says Hunter. Try this:
Nut and Date Balls
• 1 cup raw, shelled nuts (walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pecans)
• 1/3 cup pitted Medjool dates
• ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 tablespoon cacao or unsweetened cocoa powder (optional)
• 1 tablespoon honey
• A pinch of sea salt (add more salt if needed during warm months)
RELATED: 10 Top Protein Sources
Process nuts into a fine meal in a food processor. Add dates, vanilla, cocoa, honey, and salt, then process again until the mixture forms a dough that holds together when squeezed between two fingers. Roll the dough into balls or, with a rolling pin, flatten it and cut into 1-inch-thick squares. Store in refrigerator for up to a week or in freezer for up to a month. When rolled into balls about the diameter of a R2 coin, they are about 30 calories each, with about a gram of protein. Prep time: 5 minutes.
Make Fast Friends
There’s no better way to build speed than riding with people who are faster than you. Add one ride a week with a group that pedals at a more spirited pace. (Ask local bike shops about no-drop group outings.) You may get dropped at first, but each time you’ll hold on longer, and eventually you’ll be able to keep up. Or ask a speedy friend or two to join you and push your fastest pace.
Strike a Pose
Practicing yoga for even 20 minutes a few times a week can help you through hours-long rides. “Most cyclists at some point will suffer from hip, glute, or back pain because their flexibility and strength are out of balance,” says Uma Kleppinger, author of BikeYoga: A Simple Practice to Tune Up Your Body and Mind. “Relaxed, supple muscles are stronger,” she says. To that end, she prescribes pigeon pose, which opens hips and glutes and strengthens the back, and kneeling bridge, which lengthens quads and hip flexors.
Sit on your heels, knees hip-width apart. Place hands on the floor a foot behind you. Lean back and press your hips upward until you feel your quads stretching. Arc your back and chest, stretching arms and shoulders. Hold for 10 breaths.
Start on your hands and knees. First, bring your right knee forward toward your right hand, then move your right foot toward your left hip. Straighten your left leg behind you. Keep your torso upright and hands on the floor; lean into a slight backbend. Hold at least one minute on each side.
RELATED: Best Stretches for Cyclists