Nail Your Triathlon Weak Sport: Cycling

Extra time (and money) on your bike makes a big difference on the course

Cycling can be the trickiest leg of a triathlon for a number of reasons. For one thing, it’s the longest portion of the race—often as long as the other two legs combined. It can also be cost-prohibitive, which may or may not be intimidating to a rookie triathlete without the cash to drop on carbon fiber. And despite the popularity of the adage, “It’s like riding a bike,” the necessary technical skills take time and training to maintain.

But for those times you want to get fast and furious, cycling can be the best part of the race. First you rise up out of the waves like a spandex-clad Kraken and mount your trusty two-wheeled steed. Then the wind is in your face, speed and adrenaline take over, and before you know it it’s time to get off your bike and run. Learn to love this time in the saddle, and you’re on your way to mastering the triathlon. Maximize your bike training, and you stand the best chance of improving your overall time.

I spoke with Jim Bruskewitz, two-time World Triathlon Age-Group Champion and founder of the training program Endurance Performance Ltd., to get cycling-specific tips for triathletes. Bruskewitz has been racing triathlons since 1986 and coaching triathletes since 1992—back when some of his customized training had to be conducted over the phone or through snail mail. He’s even set a number of course records in the Ironman, which, for the uninitiated, involves a 2.4-mile swim and a 112-mile bike ride, with a 26.2-mile marathon as a chaser.

Although clearly his race times are strong in all three sports, Bruskewitz says he’s struggled most to improve his cycling, which gives him an edge in helping others who have trouble with the bike. Here are his tips for nailing the two-wheeled portion of the run-bike-swim trifecta:  

Start with a good bike fit.
Bruskewitz says finding a bike that’s comfortable for you is more important than finding the lightest, most aerodynamic bike. “It used to be, ‘Be more aero, be more aero, be more aero,’” he says of the old conventional wisdom. “It’s fine to squeeze yourself into a really aero position where the wind resistance is less and you have less drag, but if you’re not comfortable, you’re not going to be able to push on the pedals as hard and as long.” Visit a bike shop to get a good bike fit or test-ride bikes to find the most comfortable.

Ride more.
Like Lance said, it’s not about the bike. Time spent in the saddle is more important than fancy equipment. “You can put Lance Armstrong on a lousy bike, and he’s still going to go faster than just about everybody out there,” Bruskewitz says. “With triathlon, your fitness should come from bike training.” And since most of your triathlon time will be spent cycling, it’s safe to focus more of your training in that area. “A lot of that fitness that you’re gaining will spill over into the other disciplines, so that’s an argument for spending a lot of time on the bike,” Bruskewitz adds. Plus, it’s easier to add more bike mileage without overworking your body than it is to add more high-impact running mileage.

That said, new equipment can be motivating.
“People get excited about a new bike, so it’s motivational,” Bruskewitz says. But if you’re going to drop money on equipment, focus on wheels—they’ll make the biggest difference in terms of “throwing money at your race time.” Bruskewitz suggests finding used gear through the web or your local tri shop—when obsessive triathletes upgrade to fancier and fancier equipment every year, they leave a fleet of nearly new tri-bikes in their wake.

Focus on skills specific to your type of race.
Certainly work on your mounts and dismounts, but also consider the specific demands of your race. If you’re competing on a technical course, practice your bike-handling skills and how you approach and descend hills. Also, focus on skills specific to your weaknesses. Muscles are very specific in terms of how they respond,” Bruskewitz says. “You can be in really great shape, but if you haven’t spent that much time sprinting, you’re not going to sprint that well.” If you want to be a strong all-around cyclist, train to work at different intensities to balance both sprinting and endurance.

Find a coach (like, ahem, Bruskewitz) to take a personalized approach to your training, or put together your own plan online.
After all, time and money spent maximizing your time on the bike is probably more effective than just buying the latest and greatest. Or as legendary cyclist Eddy Merckx put it, “Don’t buy upgrades, ride up grades.”

Oh, and try to avoid this kind of transition zone madness:

Need help with a different leg of the tri? Check out other expert tips on Nailing Your Tri Weak Sport.