July is a special month for all cycling enthusiasts. Favourable temperatures and longer days give everyone more time to enjoy their favourite pastime. Coincidently, July also brings us all the Tour de France. For 21 days straight, cycling’s biggest race entertains us as the world's best cyclists take part in breathtaking sprints and climb mythical mountains. While most of us watch the Tour for entertainment, you can also learn a few things as well. Yes, you heard that correctly, you can actually get faster on your bike just by sitting on the couch! I’ve compiled a list of 10 things you can learn from watching the Tour de France - or many of professional cycling's other big events.
1. They make it look so easy.
Probably the thing that bothers me the most while watching the Tour de France is how easy it looks. Why is this? It looks so easy because the most efficient way to ride your bicycle is in a relaxed state. A relaxed body allows for better breathing and helps riders engage every muscle group in the pedalling stroke. We often tense up while we ride because the pain is an uncomfortable shock to the system. I remember hitting L’Alpe d’Huez for the first time in 2011 in the front group. I was up there with the best guys in the world, starting a climb I had only dreamed of doing. I was overcome by the moment and froze up. My arms tensed, my breathing became shallow, and my legs seized up. I was immediately dropped and spent the first three kilometres by myself flailing behind the leaders. Finally, I was able to focus again and find my rhythm. When my body returned to a relaxed state — to my surprise — I climbed back to the leaders. If this happens to you, try to overcome it by first relaxing your muscles in your hands. From your hands, then relax each muscle group until you have taken that feeling all the way down to your legs. You will happily be greeted with more power, more endurance, and fewer aches and pains after the ride!
2. Change the pace.
The sport of cycling is ridden at different intensities using many different energy systems. The Tour de France showcases this very well as you see the riders riding at low intensities drafting in the peloton, climbing by surging up the steep mountains, and sprinting cross-eyed to the finish lines. Your training rides should mimic the zones that you see on TV. Train these zones by alternating the intensities throughout your rides. This will help you improve when you go to events or ride with others as you will be better prepared for how cycling is ridden in groups. When preparing for my first Tour de France, I would just go out and train on climbs like I preferred to ride them, steady. When I arrived in the Tour, although I was fit and had a high threshold, I suffered on the flat stages and on the mountain climbs as I could not go with the accelerations. I eventually smartened up and switched my training to be able to change the pace. I found success with this training strategy by dropping a very strong Chris Horner by altering my rhythm constantly on the infamous Empire Pass to win the Tour of Utah. Changing the pace in training will also make it more fun and interesting. I always found the time to go by quicker when I was focusing on doing different things rather than just riding.
3. Nobody does the “super pull”.
We are all guilty of hitting the front on our local training rides and raising the pace 200% to show everyone how strong we are. However, this does not help us at all with building fitness nor does it help us on the training ride. In fact, the “super pull” makes us more vulnerable to others and often can lead us to getting dropped. The “super pull”, is performed at an intensity well above our threshold, yet at a power less than an attack or a sprint. You would never be able to “super pull” your way off the front of the peloton nor would you be able to SP your way to victory in a sprint. I actually capitalised on someone else doing the super pull and won my first Grand Tour stage. In the 2006 Vuelta a Espana, I was able to come around Alexander Vinokourov for the victory after he was spent from a few too many Super Pulls desperately trying to distance himself from the group behind us. Do your best and take out the SP from your riding style and weekly training routine and you will reap the benefits straight away.
4. Eat and drink.
The cameras at the Tour de France spend much of the time following the riders and filming them with their jerseys stuffed with water bottles and energy bars. And fuelling properly is one of the most critical things a rider can do to perform well, let alone arrive in Paris. A rider in the Tour de France will try and drink at least one bottle of mix or water each hour as well as eat one energy bar an hour. With nine guys on a team, and 22 teams, you can imagine how many trips are being made to the team cars by the domestiques each stage. As you know, eating on the bike is not always the easiest thing, but it’s super important. I remember hitting the Champs-Élysées in my first Tour de France and being overcome by all the emotions a rider feels in such a special location. I heard the crowd, felt the excitement, and anticipated the relief of completing the Tour de France. But the thing I remember clear as day from that moment, as strange as it is, is celebrating the fact that I didn’t have to eat any more energy bars! You eat so much during those three weeks you become sick of it. So, as uncomfortable as it is, eat solid food every hour on your bike and arrive at your finish line strong and ready for the next day as they do in the Tour.
5. Problems and B factors are part of the sport.
Cycling is a sport of organised chaos. The roads, other riders, the elements, and outside forces such as traffic influence our bike rides. With so many things happening all at once, it makes sense that things are going to go wrong from time to time. I call these things that influence us outside of our control “B factors”. Watching the Tour de France, you will notice that there are lots of B factors that derail even the most prepared athlete. Crashes, mechanicals, illness, and even people with better fitness levels bring daily drama to our television sets during the Tour. This stuff is all part of the sport, and just like it doesn't stop the riders in the Tour from pushing on, it shouldn't stop you. Instead, brush off these B factors and focus on your A game.
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6. Avoid riding at the back of the group.
As you will see during the Tour, most of the crashes and problems happen in the second half of the peloton or group. This is because the back of the group is the most dangerous place to ride. While our instincts send us there when we feel uncomfortable in a group ride setting, this is the place where all the stuff we are afraid of happens. Why? Well for a number of reasons. The first one being quite obvious: there is little to no visibility back there! The riders in front of you block your view and the further back you are, the more people you have obstructing your vision. The second reason is that in the back of the peloton everything is amplified. Just think about a traffic jam on the highway. You are zooming along and all of a sudden the car in front of you screeches to a halt. You sit there, slowly inching forward for 30 minutes, until all of a sudden the cars take off in front of you and you gun the car back up to speed. What was the cause you ask? As you start to get up to speed you notice the cause was simply four lanes merging to three. This exact same thing happens right in the peloton or on your local group ride. A car parked on the side of the road, a pot hole in the road, or even a squirrel running into the road may cause the first guys to change their line, but behind it will result in a sudden stop. Learn from the TDF riders on TV and save your brake pads and your skin by riding closer to the front in your rides and races.
7. When you attack, make it count.
You will notice that when guys attack in the Tour de France, they go 100 percent with their effort. You will never see any half-assed efforts on the last kilometres on Mt Ventoux. Instead, you see the riders focus in on their effort and give it everything, even if it might not succeed. You should do the same with your efforts in races or group rides. When you go, give it everything you have and don’t question it. I’m sure you’ve seen time and time again people who stand up, try one 10 second burst, and turn around to see if anyone is there. Right? They are all looking for the “free” breakaway. The breakaway that easily gets away because everyone in the group is simultaneously looking at their Garmins and somehow don’t see them slip away—well, that doesn't happen in the Tour de France and doesn’t happen on your Tuesday night ride. Go all in and make it count!
8. Cycling hurts - but the struggle is beautiful.
Look closely at the faces of the racers on TV each day during the Tour and you will see one expression they all have in common…discomfort. Bike riding and bike racing is all about inflicting pain on ourselves. The same thing that originally drew you to the sport often has you running away from it. The reality is, cycling is all about suffering and the best way to participate in the sport is to embrace the struggle and jump in head first. Get out there, put on your best suffer face just like Thomas Voeckler, and ride your heart out!
9. Stay alert, cycling is dangerous.
As you see on TV in the Tour de France, cycling is nuts. I just watched a stage today in which the “1km to go” banner fell on the GC favourites at the end of the race! This is bananas but “par for the course” in cycling. When racing in the Tour de France, riders have to maintain the intense level of concentration like a surgeon and the focus of a fighter pilot. When I raced in the Tour I couldn’t believe just how intense the neutral starts were. You couldn’t blink for a second as riders would fight for every inch, while the hundreds of thousands of spectators stand on the side of the road. You didn't know what was around the next corner. Was it going to be a guy in the road taking a selfie, a rider cutting across your front wheel, or a banner falling from the sky?! I had to up my concentration game dramatically in the TDF just to survive daily, but overall I think it helped my cycling on all levels after the race. Always be on guard when you are riding your bike, no matter how straight the road is and no matter how low the traffic is. Do this by searching your surroundings constantly for escape routes in the event something goes wrong. Look for places you can ride off the road to get out of a bad situation. If there are no bail-out places, then slow down and take extra precaution. In addition to this, make sure you are fully aware of everyone on the road. Keep checking ahead of you, behind you, and to your side constantly throughout the ride. By frequently surveying your environment you will always have an idea who is where and if a driver or rider is entering your proximity so that you are ready to react. I know this sounds like overkill, but if the riders in the Tour de France can do this for six hours every day for 21 days, you can definitely do it for your rides. Be aware and be alert!
10. It’s ok to get dropped.
Nearly 200 guys get dropped every day at the Tour de France! Yes folks, getting dropped is part of cycling. None of us like it, but it is a reality. When I first entered the World Tour level in 2004 on Fassa Bartolo, I remember the late Frank Vandenbroucke told me “no one ever gives up here.” I didn't believe him at first, but he sure was right. One of my first races was Volta a Catalunya with Fassa and I remember sprinting up every climb as if it was the last climb in the race. I was really suffering and climb after climb I thought it wasn’t possible to keep going at this pace. As I looked around, riders of all shapes and sizes had incredible grimaces on their faces, but they were all still in the peloton. I was not the only one who was suffering! Finally, we hit the last climb and I had no choice but to let go of the peloton as I had nothing left in my legs. I eased up and was thinking the guys around me would slow down as they had racing in America. But no, rider after rider passed me still going full gas! No one was giving up! I took Frank V’s advice and I regained my composure to push on. When I crossed the finish line, I understood more clearly the culture of European cycling. It is an honour and a privilege to be out there racing our bikes at the highest level. I discovered that the act of getting dropped is not something of which to be ashamed or afraid. Instead, you are to keep going at the same intensity as if you were up with the leaders. If you guys only take one tip from this article, this is the one. Never give up and never be ashamed of getting dropped. Keep pushing in your race or your ride all the way to the finish line like they do in the Tour de France each day!
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I hope you guys all enjoyed these tips! If you like this and are looking for more ways to improve your cycling, go to www.cinchcycling.com
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