Ride smart, ride strong
Coach to Lance Armstrong gives recreational cyclists tips
Always on a mission to get more comfortable on a bike, we nabbed cycling coach Chris Carmichael, took him to a race track and made him demonstrate some of the skills that helped him propel athletes to Olympic medals and Tour de France victories.
Only in our case, we were just aiming for increased happiness during group bike rides.
Carmichael, head of Carmichael Training Systems in Colorado Springs, Colo., was in Austin to promote his latest book, "The Time-Crunched Cyclist," in which he proclaims athletes can become fitter, faster and more powerful on the bike in just six hours a week.
We headed to the Driveway Austin, a twisting closed-circuit track and home of the Thursday Night Race Series, so we didn't have to worry about traffic as we honed those skills. We're not Lance Armstrong, you know. And Carmichael does know — he's coached Armstrong for 20 years and now spends about two months a year working with the seven-time Tour de France champion.
Carmichael, 49, has credentials of his own. A member of the 1984 U.S. Olympic cycling team and Team 7-Eleven, the first American team to ride in the Tour de France in 1986, he retired after breaking his leg (while skiing, not cycling). He met Armstrong while working as a development coach at U.S. Cycling.
Carmichael coached the 1992 and 1996 U.S. Olympic cycling teams and is known for his scientific approach to improving athletic performance. He's all about high-cadence pedaling, which shifts the burden from the legs to the cardiovascular system during racing.
But first things first. Recreational cyclists need to learn how to go slow before they can go fast, and basic skills make cycling easier — and more fun.
"Too often, people want to jump over fundamentals and go straight to dessert," Carmichael says.
Don't stare at the ground just in front of you. Look up the road. It will help you maneuver steadily around approaching obstacles. And shift in advance when you anticipate a change in speed or terrain, or an approaching headwind.
"When you look as far down the road as you can, that smooths you down," Carmichael says. It also keeps you steadier on your bike. "If you only look one or two bike lengths ahead, you get squirrelly action."
Let's be clear about this. Don't try to sprint up them right off the bat.
"A lot of times when (cyclists) hit short hills they just want to get it over, so they sprint to the top," Carmichael says.
That might work for the first couple of hills, but then you'll be exhausted. Instead, take a steady approach. Breathe deeply; don't exert yourself so much that you need short, rapid breaths. Keep your pedal cadence steady and shift before you hit the steepest section.
"Save your legs for later on, for hills No. 4 , 8 and 16," Carmichael says. "If you try punching up those early hills, your pedal cadence will drop, you won't shift and you'll drag up the hill. You're dead in the water."
As a friend of Carmichael's once said, "Where there's a wheel, there's a way."
You'll use 25 to 30 percent less energy if you ride in the slipstream of the cyclists in front of you, so catch a ride. Keep your front wheel about a wheel's distance from the bike in front of you.
Practice with three or four cyclists. Don't brake, or the cyclist behind you might ride up on your wheel. If you need to slow down, move slightly out of the slipstream. You'll catch more air, and your speed will slow.
And remember, if you're going to latch onto the back of a train of cyclists, take your fair turn up front, pulling the group.
Zooming down a long hill can strike fear into the hearts of inexperienced cyclists, but it's important to get comfortable on speedy descents.
"Actually, you have less control when you ride the brakes," Carmichael says.
On a bike with drop handlebars, instead of riding with your hands on the top of the bars, move your hands to the lower part of the handlebars. Your center of gravity will be lower and you'll be more stable. Bend your elbows, too. You can steer better and with more control.
Practice reaching your arm into the pocket in the back of your jersey for a gel or snack. And practice reaching down and removing a water bottle from its cage while you're rolling. Focus on staying steady and keeping your bike rolling in a straight line.
Get comfortable riding in multiple positions on your bike. Many cyclists spend all their time braced on top of their handlebars. If you hit a headwind in that position, your body acts like an inverted wedge, catching wind. Lowering yourself onto your drop bars decreases your aerodynamic profile. Feel uncomfortable on the drop bars? First make sure you've got a proper fit. Then give your body time to get used to it.
"If you spend 99 percent of your time above the brakes, your body doesn't adapt to the lower position," Carmichael says.
Use your body — not your handlebars — to help carve a turn. The trick is shifting your center of gravity enough to start the turn while keeping your body centered over the bike. Put your hands on the drops. Lower your upper body a bit, drop your head to the inside and press into your outside pedal. Try not to brake, which will make the bike straighten out. If you do need to slow down, just lightly feather the brakes.