How to Become a Better Cyclist
If you're planning or dreaming about cycling in Italy, my job is to make it happen for you.
You don’t need to be unemployed, inherit a trust fund or be single and childless to become a better cyclist.
It takes four words: small, consistent, focused action.
Nobody starts in the league of champions. Give it some time. Take me, for example — I got my ass handed to me for years before Bicycling Magazine featured me here. I was licking my wounds, crying myself to sleep over the previous year’s edition and voilà, I became a better cyclist. Hard work pays off.
The thing is, improvement requires clarity: decide on an event or a goal, write it down (plus look at it often) and commit to it. If, for whatever reason, you change your goal, you won't be starting back at ground zero on a new one.
It could be a monster climb, a Gran Fondo, or riding 100 km in ‘x’ amount of time. Or maybe it's having better bike riding skills? If for whatever reason you change your goal, you won't be starting back at ground zero on a new one.
Be calculated with what you commit to and understand where and how you can improve. Life gets busy. One must make becoming a better cyclist a priority. Say yes to bike rides and no to pointless pursuits like watching too many cat videos on YouTube.
Now, let’s dive into the finer details of how to become a better cyclist.
Take care of your equipment
Your relationship with the bike is a holy union. One must love and respect the bike to reap its benefits. What does that look like between human and bicycle?
Clean your bike (or have somebody clean it for you).
Not once or twice a year, but whenever it’s dirty. Replace worn out parts, like bar tape — and never use white bar tape. Then put your name sticker on the top tube. Your bicycle is your pride and joy, and you shall treat it as such.
If you're not mechanically inclined, make the effort to build a relationship with a bike shop. These people are the gatekeepers of potentially malfunctioning equipment. Court them and entice them to do good work for you.
Change your chain roughly every 6000 km.
The exact distance depends on how much tension the chain endures. If you fail to keep up on chain changes, then you'll wear out the whole drive train: front rings, cassette, pulley wheels and, of course, the chain itself. Keep up on chain maintenance and your drivetrain will live a long, loyal life, like a golden retriever.
Worn-out cleats are hazardous.
When I took the National Championship, my closest rival clipped out her pedals within 300 m of the finish, because her cleats were probably the equivalent of shredded paper. Since you’re not my closest rival, I wouldn’t want to see you take yourself out. Inspect the cleats now and again; if the edges are worn out, get new ones.
Tire pressure is one of the most important factors in a bike's ride quality, grip and control.
Jared Spier, my first guiding mentor (who also happened to coin the title Top Guide), says your tire pressure should be based on your weight, the tire volume and the type of road surface you're riding. Heavier riders need more pressure, as do narrower tires. On rough surfaces, like chip-seal or gravel, dropping 5-10 psi will be more energy efficient, as it allows the tire to deform over rough sections instead of lifting the bike and rider. Just be sure the pressure isn't so low that you risk pinch flats.
Years ago, Michelin produced the handy pressure graph below to help riders find the ideal contact patch high performance road tires were designed for. Things are a bit more complicated now that inner rim width can vary so greatly, but if you measure your actual tire width, this chart is still a great place to start and will help you dial in the right pressure to make the most of your next ride.
A better cyclist has etiquette
Becoming a better cyclist isn’t purely about horsepower; it’s also about being self-aware. Nobody wants to follow a sketchy wheel because, well, beyond the obvious consequences, it’s a poor friendship-winning formula.
Be trustworthy and predictable.
In a nutshell, that means riding in a straight line — no last-second swerves to avoid potholes or because you’re trying to look cool. People expect you’ll ride straight, so when you don’t, you’re on the blacklist, along with anybody else with road rash and chain grease on the inside of their right leg.
Point out potholes, rocks and bad pavement to the people behind you who can’t see it coming.
I’ve been that jerk before — the one who failed to point out the massive rock that had fallen down the mountainside. As I took my turn at the front during one of my first training camps, I was so worried about dropping the average speed that it didn’t occur to me to point out the huge f*ing rock. Nor did it occur to my friend, who would go on to become an Olympian and rank among the top ten in the world. I’m proud to say I haven't made that mistake again, thereby jeopardizing my Top Guide status.
Now, you know those guys who jump on your wheel just as you pass them? Don’t be those people. Or at least don’t be them without saying, “I’m cooked; can I catch a ride?” I’ve jumped on many times (I know it helps being female) and it only takes a few well-chosen words to cancel out the free ride factor. Nobody likes a freeloader, but most people tolerate friendly, honest people.
Get a scientific bike fit
Being properly fit on your bike is not only smart injury prevention but also FREE money… or watts. Each stroke of the pedal will be hard at work in the singular goal of propelling you forward. Yes, of course, there’s an initial investment, but after that, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.
The three touchpoints — pedals, saddle and handlebar — are hard to fit yourself when you don’t know how long the bones in your legs, torso and arms are. A good bike fitter will not only understand cycling and be educated on the mechanics of the body; they’ll be technologically inclined as well.
Wrong cleat position is one of the most common mistakes I see and it has a big impact on power transfer. You’ll know a pro cyclist by the fluidity with which they turn the pedals. Their feet are flat the entire pedal stroke, and that’s no accident — but by where the cleat is mounted to the shoe.
“Studies have shown drag reductions of between 27% and 50% for riders that are drafting, with the exact reduction depending on a number of variables — the size and on-the-bike position of the rider in front, likewise with the rider drafting, the distance from the wheel in front, the direction and strength of the wind, and more.”
27 to 50 percent is not a small amount, but you need to cultivate the skills to achieve it (and to avoid the above-mentioned scenarios). As a side note, forearms parallel to the ground on the hoods — not the drops, contrary to popular opinion — is usually the least drag.
So take a pull when you’re riding with your pals. Unless you’re the absolute weakest link — and we wouldn’t ask you to pull anyway — don’t save it for the last sign sprint. Put your nose in the wind and take one for the team.
Set targets and build trust with yourself
EPO alone isn’t enough for people with bad ideas to win Gran Fondos — especially when they crash themselves out… on uphills. A better strategy would be to focus on solid character building by doing hard work. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the same is true for becoming a better cyclist.
Studies show that designing our environments is one of the best ways to accomplish hard work. Would it be a good idea to keep gallons of fine Italian artisanal ice cream in the freezer and to rely solely on willpower to keep you from inhaling it all after a five-hour ride?
Or to hang around a group of Debbie Downers who constantly complain about how hard they have to work to get better at cycling? No, no. Both bad ideas. You want to surround yourself with action-takers, people who make you feel good about yourself.
By creating an environment to succeed that doesn’t rely solely on self-discipline, and by showing up for yourself there day in and day out, you’ll become someone that you, yourself, can trust. And when you build up trust with yourself, your own realm of possibility expands.
Expand your mindset
Speaking of expanding possibility: We’ve all heard, “You are what you eat,” but have you ever considered the notion that “You are what you believe?” Whether we’re aware of them or not, we all have opinions and preconceived notions, many of which are unfounded or untested.
Now, I know there are statistics and probabilities that forecast outcomes — but you might consider taking a more mindful approach to your belief system, by which I mean, investigate the validity of what you’re allowing yourself to think.
Find examples of what’s possible and reverse-engineer the results. Hang around people who are already doing what you want to do, and measure your progress legitimately.
Mindset is the single most powerful tool you have. The ultimate goal, and your challenge, is to overcome limiting beliefs.
Schedule an event in your calendar
According to the Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin, scheduling an event in our calendars nets us quadruple joy. From a single event, you can enjoy it a whopping four times by: 1) anticipating and looking forward to it, 2) savouring and enjoying it, 3) talking about it and sharing it with your friends, and 4) reflecting and looking back at it.
I don’t know about you, but to me that’s a pretty good return on investment. Choose something that lights you up. Have a vision — a “why” — and use it to keep yourself motivated. If you need help, you can count on Lucca Cycling Club!
Becoming a better cyclist requires small consistent action
Now that you know the fundamentals, every action you take in this category will be magnified because it’s strategic, intelligent, and mindful. Let’s unpack this small consistent action, shall we?
Make cycling an important part of your lifestyle.
How can you get rides in often and consistently? Would that be finding nearby group rides, commuting to work, and/or joining a local club? The key is to design your lifestyle to incorporate the bike. Having a few key cycling friends to hold you accountable and make it fun will speed up improvement immensely.
Have a goal or outcome for each ride.
Are you working on endurance, skills or climbing? What exactly are you trying to measure and improve? With specific goals and adequate self-discipline, a coach can be instrumental in your success. Having somebody to guide and monitor your progress is a valid and worthwhile investment. We don’t exist in a vacuum and doing hard things requires expertise.
Understand the importance of recovery.
Riding yourself into the pavement not only sucks, it doesn’t work. All stress to the body is considered the same, whether it’s work stress, training stress or relationship stress. Since we can never fully eliminate stress, recovery, accident prevention and stress management are imperative. Recovery methods can be highly individual, so it’s about seeking out what works for you.
Eat a high-quality, nutrient-dense diet.
The greater the caloric load a sport demands, the more important nutrition becomes. In cycling specifically, eating too few calories (or the wrong calories), can be detrimental. A cyclist wants a high power-to-weight ratio, which means minimizing excess body fat. Refined sugars and processed carbs are usually the first foods to go. If you like sodas, candies, cakes, cookies and the like, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but they won’t help make you a better cyclist.
That’s it! If you were interested in my advice for how to become a better cyclist, this is my answer. What about you — what are some tools and tactics that have worked for you?