Pacing on the Bike

The act of riding a stretch of road (or trail) as fast as possible is a skill which is at least as much art as it is science. The ideas in this series of posts pertain to those who ride alone; those being solo time trialists, non drafting triathletes, mountain bike racers and anyone who has ever been solo off the front (or back?) of a bicycle race. Perhaps you want to get to work or the local coffee shop as efficiently as possible. Regardless, the same principles apply. Point A to point B, on a bicycle, as fast as you can, using only the aerobic capacity you possess. How best to use that capacity? I say principles, but really there is only one, from which several corollaries spring. So what is this magic principle?

Here it is, as simple as I can say it:

The slower you are going, the harder you are working.

“Cool” you may say, “But how much slower and how much harder?” Well, therein lies the rub. You need to figure it out through practice and observation. The more you work within this principle, the more aware you will become of the variability of your effort and the effects on your average speed.

Let’s get as specific as we can without getting overly technical. Imagine a hill, one mile up and one mile down, with a constant 5% grade. At a steady effort you ride up this hill at 10 mph and down the other side at 30mph. What was your average speed for the entire hill?

If you said 20mph you are not alone. Not alone but not correct. You will spend a much greater duration riding up at 10mph then you spend riding down at 30mph. Avoiding real math, your average speed will then be a good bit less than 20 mph. How can we improve this average? Easy…ride up harder.

Wait, why couldn’t we ride down harder? Down is more fun right? Very simply, because wind resistance is not linear. The faster you are traveling, the harder it is to travel faster. When going uphill at 10 mph the rider will encounter low wind resistance and a substantial increase in speed commensurate with a substantial increase in effort. Downhill at 30mph, with the wind blasting you, a substantial increase in effort yields only a minimal increase in speed. Your effort is like currency, and your currency is best invested where the best returns are given. Going uphill slowly is the best time to invest some effort.

Let’s get back to my ride up harder hypothesis. You would be correct in stating that most riders already work harder while going uphill, and therefor asking do I really have anything useful to present?

Indeed, most riders attempt to attack hills in this manner, but fall short in the finer points of execution. The simplest example of this is the rider who, when faced with that one mile 5% grade, will roll up to the hill at (a theoretical) 20mph, put forth a very strong effort at the bottom, allow fatigue to taper the effort as they approach the summit, and immediately upon cresting the hill begin a slow coasting recovery. Yes, they rode up harder than they will ride down, but that in itself is not adhering to the above principle. Leaving the remainder of the ride out of the analysis, what that rider actually did was the opposite: the slower they were going, the easier they were working.

The wise rider rolls into the base of that hill at the same 20mph and gradually dials up the effort all the way to the top, turning up the intensity like the slow spin of a dimmer switch. The hill will gradually sap the speed and the rider will compensate by gradually upping their effort. Instead of that 1 mile uphill being treated as one homogenous stretch, the wise rider recognizes that each moment requires an evaluation of current speed and current effort, balanced by knowledge of how long and steep is the remaining climb, and how far and hard is the rest of the course.

“Ok, so I made it to the top, now I can recover, right?” Well, how fast are you going at the top of the hill? If you paced correctly you should be travelling at your slowest speed of the entire ascent. Remember the only rule of pacing on the bike, and slowest speed equals greatest effort. You want to minimize the time spent travelling very slow in order to raise your average speed in the most efficient way possible.

The crest of the hill is not the time to recover. It is the time to put down the most power as you quickly build up speed. The same principle applies. As you quickly build up speed you now dial back your effort, turning the dimmer switch of intensity in the other direction much more quickly. When you become very good at this, you will find that as you pass through that original 20mph mark, your effort will be very similar to what it was at the approach to the ascent. As your skill further improves you will identify the point at which you are better off coasting. This point will vary rider to rider, hill to hill, and race to race.

One might think such a task impossible to compute, to which I say you have the best supercomputer for the job right between your ears. A supercomputer which is hard wired to your muscles and respiratory system. A supercomputer that is not only capable of such a task, but was designed to do such things. It needs one simple rule, a stopwatch, and a whole lot of practice.

Now that we (hopefully) have an understanding of how to vary the effort in the very simple scenario above, how about something more complex, like a 3 mile out and back slightly rolling course? The same principle applies, but we need to overlay those moment to moment pacing decisions upon the broader picture of what is around the next bend, over the next rise, and how long is this all going to last. This is where practice of this skill and knowledge of the course will pay off.

Practicing this skill is another form of data, or knowledge of self.

The users of gizmos and gadgets, powermeters, heartrate monitors and GPS might have a slight advantage when getting started. I say might, because ultimately those who become very good at pacing are relying on their eyes, legs and brain as their guide. What do your eyes see? A short and steep thirty second hill? A long gradual climb of several minutes? A thirty minute hill that starts steep and finishes shallow? The possibilities are endless, and present endless possibilities. What your eyes see combined with what your brain knows, tempered by what your legs feel are the primary inputs for the gizmo between your ears.

Practice, practice, practice. Always asking yourself two questions…How fast am I going? How hard am I working? If you consistently find yourself running out of steam as you approach the top of hills, that’s great. You have now become aware of something that was slowing you down, and you have the knowledge to change it. It will require zero additional fitness to ride significantly faster, simply a better application of your current fitness to the task at hand.

When the opportunity arises to view a data file from a rider who is skilled in pacing, I am often left with the impression that I am watching an artist at work. I see the rise and fall, intersection and divergence of multi-hued lines on a graph representing power, speed, heartrate and elevation. Paced correctly these lines can not only be described as artistic, they are indeed brush strokes of effort laid down by maestros.

Your ultimate aerobic capacity may fall short of Olympic athletes, but I find much less divergence in the potential for truly world class pacing. As with most things worth doing well, it all starts with your awareness.