23 Solutions To Your Top Cycling Struggles
These oh sh*t moments can be relatively small cycling struggles, like getting dropped within the first 10km of a 200km day.
Or they can be monstrous, like a global pandemic that forces you to spin solo on your indoor trainer for the umpteenth day while you stare out the window on a beautifully sunny day.
It happens. But no matter the tough moment, there’s a way to push through your cycling struggles and keep making forward progress. You may even emerge from the situation with a personal win. We asked you to tell us the hardest moments you face with riding and racing. Here, we present some simple solutions for smoothing out those rough patches on any given ride.
Cycling Struggles 1 – You Start Cracking On a Climb
Steep climbs. Long climbs. Long steep climbs. Climbs of all kinds topped the list of what riders said was the hardest part of any given race or ride. Gravity is a force to be reckoned with, but rolling against its ever-present pull doesn’t have to suck.
Cycle through positions.
The first solution is as simple as varying your position; this helps take the hurt out of long climbs because it changes the load on your working muscles. Slide back on the saddle to engage your glutes. Scoot toward the nose to get more quadriceps in the action. Hover out of the saddle to put more punch into your pedals. Stand upright occasionally to stretch out your legs and back. Rotate through these different positions to prevent fatigue.
Pro-tip for steep pitches: When the grade gets so steep that you’re sliding into standstill (and topple) territory, tuck your elbows into your sides, dip your torso toward the bars, and gently but firmly pull back on the bars with every downstroke. This lets you transfer power from your upper body through your core and into your legs to assist you in forward progress.
Feed your head.
Keep a bag of energy beans, chews, or your favorite small snack handy for long rides with lots of long climbs. Pop a few at the base of each to give your mood and muscles a little hit of energy. It’s easier to keep the negative talk at bay if your brain has some sugar.
Taking full, deep breaths can help lower tension and deliver fresh oxygenated blood to your legs. When you feel yourself fading, forcefully exhale like you’re trying to blow all the air out of your lungs. The next breath you take will be fuller and deeper. This also has a calming effect and acts as a mental “reset.”
Rhythmic breathing—timing your inhalations and exhalations with your pedal stroke—also can help lower tension, quiet your mind, and let you get to the top of the climb more comfortably. Try breathing in for a count of three and exhaling for a count of two on steady climbs. When the effort gets harder and/or faster, quicken the rhythm to two counts inhale and one count exhale. You’ll find this adds a meditative element to the climb that shushes the noise inside your head that can make a hill feel harder.
Cycling Struggles 2 – OMG, The Start Is So Fast
You’re lined up for the Swartberg 100 Gran Fondo, 170km of sketchy paved and unpaved roads with a 25km, 1 000m climb to finish your day. You’d think folks might ease into a little. Nope. You’re all hammering along at 40km/h as riders hop curbs and plow through the peloton jockeying for position. If the event has a start line, no matter how long it is, there’s a good chance as many of you noted, it’ll start hard. (Heck even Zwift race starts are red hot.) It’s easy to freak out. Don’t. Instead:
Do a goal check.
What are your goals? If you’re in it to win it (whether podium or PB), push your pace to grab speedy wheels and get in with one of the lead groups. The pace will settle down (keep reminding yourself of that when you feel freaked out), but those early miles can be pretty uncomfortable.
For more specific guidelines, Hunter Allen, CEO of Peaks Coaching Group, offers the following parameters based on your functional threshold power:
- If the race is less than two hours, start “hot:” 100 to 140% of FTP (8 to 10 rating of perceived exertion on a 1 to 10 RPE scale) up to 2 minutes and then 100 to 120% of FTP (8 to 9 RPE) from 2 to 8 minutes; then FTP (6.5 to 7 RPE) after 8 minutes. Do your best to get in a fast group that can help you be pulled along.
- If the race is from two to six hours, then start at FTP (6.5 to 7 RPE) and hold for first 10 to 20 minutes and fade back to 85% of FTP (5 to 6 RPE) for the rest of the time that you can hold it.
- If the race is over six hours, then start at 90% of FTP (6 to 6.5 RPE), hold for first 10 minutes, then reduce to 80 to 85% (5 to 6 RPE) and hold for first two hours to establish your gap. Then reduce to 70 to 80% (4.5 to 5 RPE) for the remainder of event.
If you’re not worried about your final time, the solution is to let the fast packs go and ease into your day. As the miles pile up, you’ll likely still pass a lot of those hot starters who went out too fast from the gun.
Prime the pump.
Research shows that performing a quality warm-up that includes some short, high-intensity efforts before a race doesn’t actually have much bearing on finishing times, but it does prime your oxygen delivery system so you don’t burn as many matches during those first aggressive accelerations off the start. It doesn’t take long: Just pedal for 10 minutes, including three full-gas 10-second sprints, and your good to go.
Cycling Struggles 3 – Your Stomach Just Went South
You were enjoying a chainless day, churning out mega miles, when suddenly the only thing churning is the bile in your belly. Digestion is compromised during endurance activity, so sour stomachs are super common. You’ll have to suffer a bit, but it’s salvageable:
Flush the system.
Hydration is the main solution for a happy stomach, especially when you’re also taking in lots of carbs to fuel your riding. Without adequate fluids, those carbs (especially if they’re concentrated like in energy gels) aren’t diluted enough to be absorbed in a timely fashion, so they back up making you feel ill. “Dehydration can impair the integrity and function of the small intestine, as can heat stress,” Boulder-based sports physiologist Allen Lim, Ph.D. says. “This can lead to puking, diarrhea, and other GI distress.” Flushing your system with an electrolyte drink or plain water can help make you feel better.
As a general rule, you should be replacing about half of the calories you’re burning per hour for rides longer than three or four hours. If you fall behind your blood sugar can drop and make you feel queasy. Nibbling away at a bar can bring it back up and settle your stomach.
If you’re prone to gut rot, try packing a few chewable antacids like Rennies. You can take them when you feel your stomach starting to head south or prophylactically midway through your day. Some racers take one or two before a shorter, harder race.
Cycling Struggles 4 – You Got Hardcore Dropped
It sucks in the moment. But getting dropped is not all bad, and often not final if you play your cards right.
After you get over the initial ego ding, take the chance to pick your head up and enjoy the scenery. Sometimes it’s a gift to be able to ride your own ride without worrying about staying glued to a wheel or negotiating pack dynamics. Have a bite to eat. Hydrate. Settle in. And don’t be surprised if you catch the group…or others that have been dropped who you can work with as you get a few more miles down the road.
Often you can see the drop happening before the elastic finally snaps. If you’re riding with a bunch that’s just a little faster, conserve energy at every pedal turn. Stay relaxed in the middle of the pack or paceline, where you’re not pulling or dangling off the back where the “accordion” effect can wear you out from repeated slowing and surging. Stay fueled and hydrated to keep your energy stores topped off. On climbs, start in the front, to give yourself time and space to fall back without falling off.
Cycling Struggles 5 – You’re Staring Down a Scary Descent
You finally crested the summit of Redonkulous Mountain Road. You crack a smile as you breathe a sigh of relief only to catch that breath as you stare down a steep, rutted, rocky descent, which would be amazing on a mountain bike, if you were on one. As gravel races grow increasingly technical, unsuspecting riders can find themselves well out of their comfort zone. There’s no shame in walking out scary situations, but with a few strategies, you can conquer the gnar.
Drop your psi.
To riders from road backgrounds, 60 psi sounds super low (and slow). But then they’re Jiffy-Popping their way down a bumpy descent on their 700 x 35 mm tires, barely maintaining control while riders with half that psi fly on by. Though it’s counterintuitive, high pressure on rough roads increases rolling resistance, slows you down, and is less safe. Less pressure lets the tire conform to the terrain, so you feel planted and in control. You can always pump it back up if you return to roads with a hand pump or CO2 cartridge.
You need stability and shock absorption on rough descents. Hanging on with a death grip provides neither and doesn’t give your bike the freedom to correct itself and stay on line. Move your hands to the drops, elbows bent and relaxed. This lowers your center of gravity. Shift your weight back on the saddle and bend your legs so they can act like springs to absorb the bumps.
Cycling Struggles 6 – Your Motivation is MIA
Sometimes just starting is the hardest part, especially now. Motivation ebbs and flows in the best of times. When you have to ride alone all the time, it can shrivel into a shell-like crusty sealant inside an unused tire. Some simple tricks can recharge your stoke, even when you have to spin solo.
Give your bike a little love.
Pick up some fancy new bottle cages. Refresh the bar tape. Fasten a new top tube bag to the frame. Just engaging with your bike can fan the flames to hop on and get out and ride.
Build a new route.
Most of us have a handful of routes we have in constant rotation. That can get monotonous and demotivating when you know exactly what’s coming up. Try a tool like Strava’s new Routes feature or Ride with GPS’ Route Planning to find new loops in your area. Then upload it to your bike computer and go. The act of doing something a little different is mentally stimulating and can inspire you to get out of the door.
Take up a challenge.
It’s easy to lose your sense of purpose without planned rides, races, and events. Online challenges can be a solution. Join a Strava distance or climbing challenge. Play along with any number of pros who have created virtual community “events,” like Ted King’s DIY Gravel, where you ride the same distance of an event you had planned, or Rebecca Rusch’s Giddy Up for Good that encourages you to rack up vertical feet for charity. You’ll feel like you’re part of something and your cycling struggles will be for a purpose.
Find a virtual buddy.
Group rides and riding buddies help keep you accountable to kit up and get out the door even when motivation is low. Shared cycling struggles seem more bearable. Find another lone sole to pair up with virtually. Text each other your ride plans for the day—or even week—and keep each other accountable by sending photos, ride files or other proof that you got up and got out the door.
Cycling Struggles 7 – You Hate the Headwinds
Boy, do you hate the headwinds. Of all cycling struggles, this is the constant, across the world and across disciplines, with no simple solution in sight. Most of you dread them more than hills, which is totally understandable because unless you know you’ll reach a point where that wind will be at your back, blissfully pushing you all the way home, they feel utterly unrewarding. You can’t stop the wind from blowing, but you can keep it from wrecking your ride.
Spin into it with souplesse.
You can mash like you have a million potatoes under your pedals, and you still won’t break that 30km/h block headwind you’ve been fighting for miles. You’ll just get tired. Solution: treat it like a long climb: Shift into an easier gear and spin a smooth high cadence. If you’re monitoring your metrics, watch your watts, not your speed. You can have the satisfaction of knowing that you’re still getting the work done, even if you’re not making as much forward progress as you’d like.
Get low and aero.
Your bike only accounts for about 20 to 30 percent of your aerodynamic drag. The rest is your body, specifically your frontal surface area. To lower the resistance, you want to shrink that surface area by making yourself low and narrow. Riders often assume that means riding in the drops. But an aerodynamics study of various riding positions by Australian aerodynamics expert Nathan Barry, a Ph.D. found that the most aerodynamically-efficient riding posture is with your hands on the hoods, arms bent with forearms parallel to the ground. That position is also more comfortable and sustainable than sticking to the drops.
Get in the bubble if you can.
When you can ride in a group, use pack dynamics for protection. When you’re tucked behind another rider, you enjoy about a 30-percent reduction in wind resistance. But even if you’re leading the charge, you still get a little boost, according to wind tunnel research, because having someone behind you creates a low-pressure air bubble that lowers the wind resistance about 3 percent. Riding toward the back of the pack is a sweet spot with the least resistance, but minimize your time being the caboose. Being at the end of the line means you have no one behind you to create that low-pressure pocket, so it can feel harder to bring up the rear.
Cycling Struggles 8 – You’re Stuck Inside
For most of us, being stuck indoors is the worst, especially when it’s sunshine-and-shorts season. Fortunately, technology makes the inside grind more bearable—dare we say even enjoyable. Turning cycling struggles into future fitness, a few strategies can make the inside even more inviting.
Create a pleasant space.
Your training space should be a place you want to go, not a dank basement dungeon that feels like punishment. Set up by natural light, and a window you can open, if possible. Circulate the air with a strong fan as a solution for the several bodyweights you will sweat. Prop a portable speaker by your side for some surround sound. And immerse yourself in stimulation to distract from the tedium of pedaling in place.
Join virtual groups.
There is no shortage of virtual group rides and races. You can invite your friends for E-meetups or ride along with pros from around the world who are holding Zwift events.
Follow a plan.
No matter what indoor training app you choose, they all have structured plans you can follow. Even if you’re not training for anything, following a plan can give you a purpose to hop on the trainer each day and make progress in your cycling and overall fitness, which is good for your health and well being even when you can’t ride outside.