Before I begin, I should define a cyclist, which according to the Cambridge Dictionary is:
- “a person who rides a bicycle”
This could go into many, many subcategories (such as mountain biker, road cyclist, unicyclist, courier, leisure cyclist, commuting cyclist & more). For the purpose of this article, I’m going to define cyclist as a road cyclist. Someone who likes to go out on their road bike out with friends or on their own, to discover new places, routes, cafes, hills, and will probably commute by bike too — the list is endless. The main part of this persons ride will be on the road, but they’ll take a cycle path if available or appropriate. If this is you, or if this is what you’re thinking about — read on. Although the principles remain the same for other types of cycling.
Here in Scotland, we have cycle paths just like many other places, and there’s one right next to the house I moved to around ten years ago. It goes from Paisley to Irvine by path and occasional quiet roads. When I moved here I figured I’d best make use of the local amenities so I bought a bike. It was a cheap mountain bike which I got second hand, but it did the job of getting me from A to B. Around eleven kilometres along the path is the village of Lochwinnoch with a nice loch and visitor centre, popular with cyclists. It took me just over thirty five minutes to travel there to begin with, and about the same time going back too. As I got more confident on the bike, I started to find alternative routes to go to, and soon found myself on the road. Having completed the ‘Cycling Proficiency Test’ during my old school days, I knew the procedures and signals I was required to make to alert other road users of my presence and my intentions so I felt confident about being on the road.
Every time I went out on my bike, I extended my route a little further, just to see where roads and paths led to. There was no performance about it. I wasn’t measuring my speed or ascent, I only had an odometer to clock up the miles. But it became clear that, as many other cyclists do, I struggled on hills. I didn’t think about my weight or the weight of my bike, just that I needed to be a bit lighter and faster.
When I upgraded to a Giant Defy a year later, that’s when cycling became much more exciting for me. I’d never ridden a proper road bike before, so was a bit unsure about my position on the bike at first (and the gears — this had a triple chainset), but like any bike, riding it soon became second nature. The more aerodynamic position naturally led to an increase in speed (not by much, but noticeable). It was at this stage when I believed myself to be what most people nowadays would describe as the ‘average’ cyclist: someone who knows the rules of the road, and goes from A to B at whatever pace they want. But how does the average cyclist get better… and what should they be getting better at?
Lets look at some common issues which I hear from people I meet who cycle:
Rules of the road: The average cyclist might not be aware of all procedures and etiquette to follow when cycling on paths and roads. This can lead to accidents, near misses and cyclists getting a ‘bad name’.
Fitness: The average cyclist is of average fitness, but probably isn’t aware of their potential and how much fitter they could become.
Hills: The average cyclist is likely to struggle when it comes to hills, and would tend to prefer long & gradual gradients compared to shorter, steep gradients.
Bicycle: The average cyclist may be riding a heavy bike (for example, with an aluminium or steel frame), or indeed may already be riding a lighter bike (such as those with a carbon fibre frame).
Here is a good way to address these common issues:
Know and obey the rules of the road
To be a better cyclist, first and foremost you must obey the rules of the road. Here in the UK — that means reading and understanding the Highway Code. Basically, don’t be a dick and cycle through red traffic lights. Watch your speed in built up areas and paths, and indicate your intention to other road users. If you’re unsure about any of this, check for local cycling training classes or events, such as Bikeability.
Put a marker on your fitness level and regularly test against it.
Got a favourite hill you like to climb or a favourite flat section that you like to go faster on? Download an app (Strava is good) and time yourself on it. Take note of your heart rate and/or power for this too.
You’re inevitably going to come across a hill which you’re going to find hard to climb. The only way to get it done is simply to climb it. However, how you approach the climb in your mind and in your legs will define how you conquer it. I was approaching every climb at full gas and was burning out/emptying the tank less than halfway up most climbs.
This is entirely up to you. But a lighter bike (which tends to be more expensive) would really make a difference in handling, sprinting, and of course climbing.
If you’re going to cycle a good distance on your bike, you’re going to want to know how to maintain and repair it (if you get a puncture or rubbing brake pads etc.)
Did I do the above to become a better cyclist? Yes, but I didn’t do everything straight away. I didn’t put a marker on my fitness level, nor did I have any idea about pacing myself on a climb. I got another bike, this time a Specialized Allez, again with a triple chainset. This one was still aluminium, but had carbon fibre forks at the front. I did notice a slight difference in handling compared to previous bikes, but I still struggled on the hills. I discovered an hour- long loop including a large climb on it, which was all on the roads and this became my ‘training loop’, and I gradually completed the loop in a shorter time. But we’re talking seconds, not minutes on the new bike — not until a couple of years later.
Longer journeys soon became the norm, and I found myself champing at the bit to get out first thing on a Saturday or Sunday morning to go and ride 60/70/80 miles. I even took part in the ‘Pedal For Scotland’ sportive, cycling 100 miles between Glasgow and Edinburgh, with some really nasty hills thrown in. I made it, but it was a real struggle.
Time passes, miles are clocked up, but as the years went by I didn’t seem to be getting any better. I didn’t know what else to do but figured a new bike might help (are you noticing a pattern here?). So, in summer 2015, I purchased the next model up of the current bike — upgrading to a Specialized Allez Elite.
By this point I had also lost quite a bit of weight through diet and exercise, and only really noticed a small difference on hills (I got up them quicker, but it was still a real struggle). There was a slight increase in average speed, so overall there was a difference, but it wasn’t enough for me to be confident in taking my cycling further and I could tell there was plenty room for improvement.
My next step was to look at joining a cycling club and see if that would help. But which one? There were quite a few to choose from. I am generally quite a competitive person so I chose the club which also had a race team and were getting results. Whilst I wasn’t at any point thinking I would win a race, I quite fancied taking part but realised I had a long way to go. I didn’t quite get round to joining — I was too busy enjoying the outdoors on my new bike, and wanted to make sure I was comfortable on the bike first before paying a fee to join a club.
At the end of July that year, literally two weeks after getting the new bike, I crashed going down a hill — fast (on the training loop I mentioned above). A broken bike, broken elbow and broken confidence was the result of that. You can read about this in my Medium article “This Is Why I’m Still Alive”.
I was off the bike until after the winter, when I then joined a cycling club and started going out with them every Sunday, starting as soon as the clocks changed in Spring. I think I was the only person in the club with an aluminium bike, but still managed to keep up with the group (I opted for the slower group ride at first before progressing).
I started to take part in their midweek rides (hill training, time trials) as well as the longer Sunday club runs, and found my fitness getting better and better, and quickly too! By the late summer I was finding myself in the fast group every Sunday. This was through regular bunch riding, hill training (doing hill repeats), time trialling a 7 mile flat course (which is where my marker for fitness really comes into play!), and I learned more about technique especially on hills.
Four years later, I had been winning and coming runner up in their competitions, and was voted Rider Of The Year by my clubmates. I got a new bike (again, yeah!) — a fully aerodynamic carbon fibre frame. This is what I’m currently riding: a Giant Propel nicknamed ‘The Weapon’ because I’ve been setting Personal Best’s all over the place with it ever since I started riding it.
Last year I found that I had reached my peak with that club, and was finding that I wasn’t challenging myself as much as I wanted to, nor was the club doing the mileage I wanted so I decided to move onto a club with a bigger race team and faster riders. At time of writing, I’ve just finished my first year with the club and already noticed a big difference in my fitness, pace, average speed, climbing and time trialling. I’ve done reasonably well in the new club’s competitions (winning one and coming 3rd and 6th place in others), and this is down to all of the above solutions to address initial common issues PLUS joining the club which really helped me get better at climbing, riding on the flat, and learning things like road positioning, as well as bunch riding. What’s next for me? I’ve definitely found the right club in the Johnstone Wheelers Cycling Club, and I’m committed to improving even more next year. But one things for sure: I’m a much, much better cyclist than I thought I would become. That cycle to Lochwinnoch? At my current best, I’ve shaved fifteen minutes off that time.
So, lets look at what I did, and how you can become a better cyclist too…
Know And Obey The Rules Of The Road
Already covered this above, but mentioning this again because it’s the most important part of cycling. This is common sense really. If you’re unsure about these — at all — then before you take to the road please undergo some cycling training (such as Bikeability in the UK) and read our Highway Code.
Join A Local Cycling Club
This was the single best decision I’ve ever made in my life. At first I thought that I would improve my cycling and fitness a little bit, but the gains I made even in the first year of riding with a club were huge and completely exceeded my expectations. At first I was anxious about cycling around other people and nearly never turned up to my first group ride, but grit your teeth and introduce yourself. Cycling clubs LOVE newbies — the more people out cycling with them the better. Please do look into joining one, even if you fancy yourself racing— you’ll still make some huge improvements in your cycling ability.
Put A Marker On Your Fitness And Regularly Test Against It
Initially, I did this on Strava, timing myself on my training loop and on a hill climb. This isn’t a bad way of doing it, but after joining a cycling club I’ve learned there are two ways of properly testing your fitness:
- Through a time trial (this is basically a seven, ten, or twenty five mile race between you and the clock — and nothing else!). Once you’ve put a time down on a course, you will soon become addicted to beating it. It takes a lot of effort, but there is no better feeling when you achieve a personal best!
- The other way is an ‘FTP Test’, which is basically riding as hard as you can sustain for twenty minutes, and taking a note of your average power for this length of time. This data can then be used for more specific training for races, time trials, and general fitness. You can set your power zones (and heart rate zones but using your average heart rate) with this data. Power is the most specific data you can use (there’s no variables in power — but there’s variables in heart rate and also variables in simply timing yourself on Strava). Power is king to be honest.
I ‘ve been using time trials to keep an eye on my fitness until last month when I got a Peloton bike for use when I haven’t got much time to go out or if its icy outside. It uses power and I can do an FTP test on it.
A few things I learned about climbing hills through trial and error, and advice from my clubmates which I’ve used and really benefitted from:
- Watch your form. Above your waistline you should be completely still, which allows you to focus all your effort on powering your bike from below the waistline i.e. your legs.
- Try climbing using the above form, but put your hands on the ‘tops’ of your handlebars e.g. right in front of your chest — instead of at the ‘hoods’ at each side. Sit upright almost perpendicular to the hill. This opens up your airwaves and allows you to breathe deeply to get more oxygen into the muscles to make them work as hard as they can.
- Cadence — the rate at which you spin your legs. I tend to aim for 75–80rpm cadence as a minimum on hills. But do what feels right for you.
- You’ll only get better at climbing hills the more you climb them! Hill repeats are a great way of building fitness AND improving your hill climbing. Try six reps (no break in between!) on a short hill (up to a four or five minute climb) or three reps on a longer hill. Don’t do any more than this, once (maybe twice if you’re feeling strong) per week.
- Unless the hill takes you less than 30 secs to 1 minute to climb, regardless of inline, don’t go full gas from the off. Pace yourself! Your form as described above should help with this.
- Lose weight. This could be from the bike (lighter wheels, one bottle instead of two, etc. — or from the rider in the form of actual body weight, or clothing/bags. Losing weight will definitely make it easier to climb.
- Climbing can be painful on the legs, you should expect it to be hard — that’s part and parcel of cycling.
I initially noticed a small difference using a slightly lighter bike, but once you spend more money and invest in a better, lighter, more aerodynamic frame (and wheels if possible), you’ll notice a massive difference from your standard steel or aluminium bike. I’d already lost a good amount of weight and was still on an aluminium bike for three years. When I finally invested in a carbon fibre bike, the difference really was like night and day!! I’d really recommend spending a bit more to get a better bike. But also check the second hand market — there are some great bikes for great prices there.
This won’t necessarily make you better at actually riding your bike, but you’ll be an overall better cyclist if you know what to do when things go wrong. There are hundreds of YouTube videos on how to fix a flat tyre. But make sure you also know how to adjust the brakes (in case the brake pads rub against the wheel), and try to keep your bike and all its moving parts clean. If its been a dirty ride I clean mine straight away. Other than that, it’s once per week.
This is what I’ve done, and it’s definitely made me a far, FAR better cyclist than I ever imagined. What about you? Have you tried any of the above? Any more tips?