Bike Racing Over Winter – Why All Triathletes Should Give It A Go

When heading into winter or the offseason, most triathletes will sit down and review the running calendar to see which run races they will incorporate as part of their training. But how many triathletes sit down and mull over the cycling calendar to decide which bike races they will enter? Surprisingly, or not, only a small minority.

I’m not talking about your mass group/participation rides; I’m talking about actually ‘bike racing’ – where you pin on a number, line up against pure cyclists and race for placings.

This got me thinking, and I wondered why only a small number of triathletes participate in bike racing. When I delved a little deeper, I learnt that unless a triathlete comes from a cycling background, they don’t really know a great deal about the cycling community. Triathletes may feel intimidated or don’t even know where to start, so they simply don’t even bother considering it. The thought of crashing also puts many triathletes off and can be one of the reasons many triathletes are too nervous to give bike racing a go. Along with this, many triathlon coaches aren’t involved in the cycling community either, so they don’t discuss the option of including bike racing into a triathletes training program, as they too don’t know enough about the sport to add it.

If you are looking at focusing on the bike leg over winter, I’ll show you why and how to incorporate bike racing into your training mix to help you become a stronger and more skilled cyclist, so you can transform into a stronger all round triathlete.

WHY you should incorporate bike racing into your training:

1.    Build your bike skills

In swimming, we practice and incorporate tumble turns into training even though we don’t need the specific skill in racing, but we know the benefits it offers. In cycling, developing, practising and incorporating bike skills is exactly the same. Traditionally triathletes are not known for their bike handling and skills. This is mainly because triathletes don’t see the need to learn these skills as we don’t use them in racing. However, the skills you develop in bike racing, just like the skills developed in open water swim events, help you to develop the necessary skills to become a better cyclist and bike handler overall. This is not only beneficial to you becoming faster but also helps for safety reasons too. Plus, the more skilled you are on the bike, the more confident you will be and the more you will be able to push yourself – whether when riding by yourself or in a faster group. 

2.    Race specific skills (draft legal)

Bike racing helps you develop key race specific bike skills, including drafting, bike handling, strategic racing skills and more, and the winter season is the perfect time to hone these skills against other top cyclists. It’s hard to simulate this type of racing and skills in training, so bike races, and in particular criterium racing, are the perfect way to improve these skills.

3.    Provides winter motivation

If you are a fair weather rider or sometimes struggle for motivation with getting on the bike in the dark/cold winter months, then entering some bike racing events is an excellent way to get out and get your long ride done, and keep the motivation high. Just the same as entering running events over winter, bike racing allows you to stay focused, and have something to work towards during the times when triathlon races seem so far away.

4.    Train and race with those stronger than you

To become better at something, you should train with those who are better than you. Most triathletes will consider themselves decent runners until they enter run events and run against pure runners. The same goes for cycling. Enter into a bike race or two, and you will soon learn that even the strongest triathlete riders will find it hard to compare to the strongest cyclists. This is a great way to challenge and push yourself against some of the strongest in their field and drive yourself to become stronger yourself.

5.    Changing your training stimulus

If you have been training and racing for a few years, you will probably find you go through a similar winter season year after year. Long aerobic and hilly rides, building up the duration or the elevation over the months, but essentially the same (or very similar) training stimulus each year is rolled out. There’s a great saying: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always got.” Bike racing incorporates a great mix of different training stimulus on the body’s energy systems – aerobic (sitting in the bunch), threshold (chasing a pack), VO2 (holding off a chase) strength (hills), power (sprinting to the finish). And just like any other event/race, it’s hard to simulate these top efforts in training, and so racing can give you that extra five to 10 percent you may be looking for. Changing up your training and including a different stimulus such as bike racing can provide you with the stimulus your training may just be looking for.

6.    It’s safer than you think

Yes, there are crashes in races, and you may see them happen, but it doesn’t mean you will be involved in one. I’ve raced for three years and haven’t had one crash. In general, crashes happen because an athlete takes too big of a risk (and it doesn’t come off), or because an athlete stops concentrating or isn’t aware of the other athletes. This can all happen in training too. If you’re scared of crashing, my advice is to race to your ability, know your limits, and develop the skills and confidence over time. And again, just like in swimming, position yourself in a pack where you feel comfortable. In bike racing, if you are not confident, the worst place you can sit is in the middle of the pack. So, start off by learning from the peloton on the back or side of the pack, and get a feel for the other riders and gain your confidence. Then make your way into the pack, taking turns and making moves. For my first few races, all I did was sit on the back, watch and learn. This was the best thing I could ever do to learn and stay safe!

7.    Keeping it fun

If you feel like you have started to lose your mojo on the bike, or training in general, changing things up can be a breath of fresh air. Having a new and different focus over winter can help to bring back your motivation and throwing in some bike racing may just be the catalyst you need!

HOW to include bike racing into your training:

Have I convinced you yet, to give bike racing a go this winter? Awesome! Here are some key things to get you started:

1.    Equipment: You will need a road bike – tri bikes are illegal in road races.

2.    Watch and learn: Head down to a local race to first watch a race in action. Watch how the experienced riders navigate the peloton, the lines they take, how they spend their time and energy in a pack, and how they set themselves up for attacks or the finish line sprint. Watching and learning can be one of the best ways to learn from the best.

3.    Join a cycling Club: The cycling culture and club support are fantastic, so I suggest simply finding a club close to you and enquiring with them. A list of clubs is available from your state cycling body (i.e., Cycling Victoria). Clubs are fantastic at supporting those new to the sport and can provide you with plenty of guidance and information on getting started. Note: most Clubs will have a small annual fee to join.

4.    Have the basic skills: Even though you will use racing to develop your bike skills, it is still important that you are competent and comfortable on local group/training rides first. Basic bike skills that you will need include not only having base fitness/endurance but also base bike handling skills, knowledge of pack etiquette, knowing how to draft and corner, and having rider/situational awareness – these are all essential to riding safely. In bike racing (and pack riding in general) you want smooth movements rather than sudden changes. You also want to hold a constant line through corners. If you are unsure whether your skills are up to scratch, most local cycling clubs offer bike skills courses and trials before entering a race.

5.    Get your insurance: Just like Triathlon Australia, Cycling Australia requires you to hold a license for insurance purposes to race. A great way to ‘try before you buy’ is purchasing a three-race license so you can try out a few races before signing up to an annual Cycling Australia Membership.

6.    Choose your event/s: There are a number of different types of bike racing including road races, criteriums, time trials and two to three-day tours, all of which are an excellent way to improve your skills, strength and performance on the bike. A time trial is an easy one to start with, and you may want to gravitate towards this, but really they are more like a triathlon than a bike race. Criteriums only happen over the summer season, so in winter, road races are a great place to start. Start by choosing road races on courses that are less technical until you build up your confidence. Find out what races are on in your area/state by contacting the state cycling body (Cycling Australia).

7.    Find your grade: Most races are graded A, B, C, D, etc., with grade A being the strongest, and cyclists are graded accordingly, based on previous races. If this is going to be your first bike race start in a lower grade and ease yourself into racing – you can always move up once you gain your confidence. There is nothing worse than entering a grade above your ability and getting dropped by the bunch in the first five minutes and finding yourself riding by yourself for the rest of the race.

8.    Give it a go: Once you have done your research, it’s simply about biting the bullet, entering and giving it a go!

As you sit down over winter and plan your season, throw up the idea of incorporating bike racing into your training mix. Then watch as your bike strength and endurance improves along with your enjoyment!

Written by Coach Sarah, as previously published in Australian Triathlete Magazine

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Sarah is the Director & Head Coach at Complete Per4mance Coaching. Born out of the desire and passion to not just coach but to educate athletes, Sarah shares her 10 years of coaching and racing experience, knowledge and education with athletes of all levels to help them achieve their optimal performance while maintaining a balanced, happy and healthy life.

Contact Sarah to discuss training options for you.

The winning mentality

“I wasn’t the strongest physically out there. But what I did have was self belief, and I had absolutely nothing to lose. ”

I love racing. I love the pre-race nerves, that feeling of hesitation in the pit of your stomach, the nervous energy that wants to explode out of you. Others may dread that feeling, but I thrive off it. I love preparing for a race, the energy at the venue, the feelings of anxiousness, the fear of the unknown. I don’t get that feeling from anything else, so I look forward to it.

As it nears 12 months since my last race pre-baby, surprisingly I actually hadn’t missed that feeling though. People would ask me if I missed racing, and I was honest and said I didn’t. I was simply enjoying being able to train to stay fit and healthy and in providing the best possible environment for my growing bump. – and that was my purpose. So I trained and that feeling it gave me afterwards was what I thrived off. That was my ‘high’.

But 3 months post baby (where has that time gone?!) and that feeling wasn’t quite enough anymore. There was a ‘feeling’ that was missing and it started to gnaw away at me. Something was subtly telling me that it was time. I was ready to get those feelings back that no amount of training can replicate.

And that was when I knew I was ready. I haven’t been training specifically to race, I have barely been on the road, I’m definitely not as fit and strong as I have been in the past, I’ve lost top end speed, I’ve lost my endurance, but what I haven’t lost is my drive and my ability to push my body beyond it’s limits.  I’m was no where near race ready, and nor do I want to be at this stage, but I was ready to get back out there, have some fun and see what my body was capable of and I was ready to get those race nerves back!

So as I lined up on the start line of a Crit race on the weekend. I was nervous. ‘I feel like i’m doing my first ever race!‘ I told a friend on the start line. And that was my reminder why I train.  I was born competitive. And this was where I belonged.

For those who have raced criteriums before, you know it can be a bit of cat and mouse game. It’s not necessarily who is the strongest rider, but who can play it smart, use tactics to put themselves in the best position to cross the line first. Sitting in as much as possible and saving energy until the last part of the race and the all important finish line sprint.  But the ‘triathlete’ comes out in me and I’ve never been able to race like that. I race smart, but I race hard. But if it was going to be hard for me, I was going to make it hard for others too. So despite not being race fit (I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve ridden on the road in the past 6 months), I wasn’t going to stop me having a crack.

As the race went on, the cat and mouse game continued, but I was able to work out who was willing to work and who wasn’t. I knew my legs were able to work for short efforts, but anything longer and the lactic threshold started to build and my body wasn’t able to sustain it. At the same time, I’m not a sprinter, so I knew I didn’t want to be rounding the last lap with the sprinters and having to battle it out for a sprint finish. So I had cracks off the front, I chased others down. I worked hard. I didn’t want it to just be an easy race with a finish line sprint.

So as we neared the end of the race, a couple of laps out from the finish and one rider went and in that moment I thought she was going to win off the front. But I wasn’t ready to give up just yet and a few of us chased and we gradually bridged the gap. As we rounded into the last lap I didn’t feel like I was the strongest, but I said to myself right then that I wasn’t going to listen to my legs, I was going to give everything from the last corner and I started to mentally picture the finish line.

So as we rounded the last corner I dug as deep as I could. I was third wheel but I could feel my momentum building, it was going to be very close. ‘I can’t loose this now‘ I said to myself. My legs and my lungs were screaming at me, and it could have been easy for me to ‘settle’ for second or third – heck I’d just given birth to my baby boy 3 months ago! But I wasn’t willing to settle. So I drove my bike out of the saddle right to the finish line just pipping the other two girls in a tight photo finish.  (not the most glamorous photo, but it definitely sums my race up!) 😉

But I don’t believe I won this race because I was physically the strongest. I won this race mentally. I wasn’t willing to settle for not giving my everything.

Where some athletes miss that winning mentality is by settling. It can be easy to be content and say ‘I’m happy with 2nd, but the question is – are you really? Or are you just settling? Did you allow yourself to settle for second? Or did you actually give every ounce trying to reach first? If you didn’t, why not? What was it that you weren’t prepared to do? Were you not prepared to push that hard? Or was that person out front just that much better than you on the day? You need to be able to answer these questions and be honest with your answers so you can reach your true potential.

So don’t allow yourself to settle. When you think you are done, convince yourself that you have just that little bit more. Break it down. “to the next tree’, ‘pass the next person’, ‘just 5 more minutes of hurt’, whatever your ‘cues’ are use them. And if they aren’t working use something else. It’s a mind game out there. Not just a physical game.

Of course there will nearly always be stronger athletes – that’s the beauty of racing and that’s what helps drives us too. Other days you may just not feel 100% either, a little flat/off, or the legs just didn’t come to play – and that’s ok, as long as you can determine why and as long as you still give 100% on that day.

Something I took away from my time spent last year watching and learning from National Performance Centre Triathlon Head Coach Dan Atkins were some words of wisdom he shared with us: ‘All I ask is for my athletes to give me 100% of whatever they have on that day”.  Re-read that sentence. All Dan asks of his athletes is to give 100% of whatever they have. So even if you only have 80% on the day, as long as you give 100% of that 80%, that’s all that can be asked of you. So don’t settle.

So much of racing is a mental game – not just a physical one. I don’t believe I was the strongest physically out there racing on the weekend. But what I did have was self-belief and a strong mental game. My purpose for the race was to test my mental strength against my physical strength. The end result? A win in my first race back since having my bubs 3 months ago.

This race I can say my mental strength was stronger than my physical one. What I can’t wait for is  when they both line up again on the start line together as strong as each other…..


Key take aways? 

– Give everything you have on the day, regardless of how you feel.
– Train yourself mentally, not just physically
– Self belief goes a long way to reaching your potential
– Visualise how you want your race to look – a powerful tool to use.
– Be willing to push the line to find where the edge lies.
– Don’t be afraid of the pre-race nerves, use them to your advantage
– Use mental cues/ positive mantras for when a race gets tough
– Don’t settle. Always strive for more. Always.

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If you would like me to help you improve both your physical and mental performance, contact me for a chat no matter your level or goals. 

Pictures courtesy of Mich Adventures and StKilda Cycling Club