When I was 40, I had a heart attack. It came by surprise. I had been, and still am, a dedicated athlete. Luckily, I survived, and, in 2008, I founded MI:Aware--MI stands for "myocardial infarction"--to educate people about the risk of heart attack, which can strike without symptoms.
I'll be leading a cycling clinic July 22 to 25 called the Tour d'Aspen to help raise funds for MI:Aware. It will happen in conjunction with the climax of the Tour de France. We hope to share in the excitement of, and pay homage to, Le Tour. Riders will get the chance to improve their techniques by cycling through training terrain used by Tour de France and Olympic champions, such as Lance Armstrong. There will be three routes, which mirror the final four stages of the Tour de France, set in the Roaring Fork Valley, where our host, The Little Nell, is located. You can sign up at thelittlenell.com (packages, including three-nights lodging and daily breakfast and lunch, start at $2,500 per person; the clinic alone is $975).
In light of this upcoming long-weekend ride, I present my top 11 tips for improving your cycling technique:
11. Pedal with flat feet: Some people think of keeping their heels down, and some point their toes towards the sky. A couple of analogies we use are to picture the linkage on an old steam engine and visualize your foot as the linkage come up and staying flat throughout the revolution of the wheels. The other is to picture an equestrian rider, riding a horse with heels down, while toes are in the stirrups. Toes down is a no, no in my book, and you'll see why in the next two tips, as they all go together.
10. Get on the pedals early: This means you start pushing forward on the pedals before they reach the top of the arc or 12 o'clock. With your feet flat to slightly toed up/heeled down you'll be able to increase your power band from two to three hours if you look at the face of a clock. With left foot, start pushing at 10 o'clock instead of one o'clock. With toes down it is very difficult to start pushing before the pedals reach 12 o'clock.
9. Focus on the push phase of the pedal revolution as it is where you produce the most power: I read articles all the time and hear from people that they focus on getting through the dead spot, as if scraping mud off the bottom of their shoes. They spend so much time pulling up and focusing on the weak part of the stroke they forget to push on the pedals.
I owe Joe Saling, multi-time national champion and one-time heart attack survivor, for the saying "push hard and pedal fast" as he sent me off to win the Pan Am Masters Time Trial Championship in Mar del Plata, Argentina, in 2006.
8. If you ride with your hands on the tops/flat part of the bars, ALWAYS WRAP YOUR THUMBS: I've personally--and talked to too many pros--who've slipped off their bars at the worst time or silliest time, depending on how you look at it, because they didn't have a grip on the bars. I remember Danny Pate of Garmin-Transistions in particular telling us about his misfortune while racing one year because he'd had his thumbs on top of the bars.
7. Change your hand position on the bars every few minutes, practicing to produce power in the drops, on the hoods, and/or on the tops: This will allow you to adapt neuromuscularly and be able to produce the necessary power when slicing through a head wind or climbing a steep hill.
6. Visit your doctor for an understanding of your cardiovascular fitness and blood work: Getting your cholesterol checked and practicing a cardiac awareness and prevention lifestyle will improve your riding immensely. In addition to knowing your true risk for heart disease, know the warning signs for a heart attack so that you can avoid my story.
5. Go slow to go fast!: If you are a rider looking to gain improvement, do a field test or visit a physiologist to help you determine your lactate threshold power and heart rate, and train to improve it. Training in your easier zones below lactate threshold will make you faster all around in the long run or ride, as the case may be.
Probably 95 percent of the people I coach or ride with are going too hard, too often, to reach their fitness goals. Some high school or college coach along the way has them believing in the old adage of no pain, no gain, and that's the last thing we want our athletes doing.
4. Use your gears and switch them before you get on the hill and have all the tension on the chain and cogs: All that popping and grinding and inability to shift gears under load is normal. You wouldn't shift your manual transmission car without putting the clutch in, so why would you shift a bike without letting up on the pedals a bit? And that goes for shifting in and out of the front chain rings as well as changing cogs on the rear cassette.
3. Keep your head up, and relax your elbows, shoulders, and hands slightly: Keeping your head up too high, with all the tension in your hands, neck, arms, and shoulders, will give you some aches and pains that are unnecessary and put you at risk for erratic handling of the bicycle in adverse conditions. Being loose allows your bike to respond just the right amount to stones, gravel, or wind. Looking where you are going is pretty obvious. After all, you wouldn't walk down the street in NYC looking at the sidewalk just in front of your feet as you'd get mowed down by other pedestrians, taxis, or cars.
2. Perhaps the most important thing to improve a rider's comfort is the position of the saddle: Having a saddle flat to slightly up will keep you from sliding to the front and allow you to be supported by the saddle in the places intended. You may have to lower your seat slightly from where it is now if you notice it pointing down, but you'll also notice all that pressure on your hands, neck, and back gets alleviated a bit. It's something I'm all too familiar with and one of the greatest things I learned from working with the legendary positioning and aerodynamics guru Steve Hed of HED Wheels.
1. Eat and drink often on the bike: The metric we used to use was a bottle an hour, and with the bigger bottles available today, it's just about right. You can very rarely drink too much water, and I recommend mixing a little electrolyte concoction to keep your reserves up. Eat your favorite solid foods early in your longer rides and save the gels and bars for later. I used to notice I was the first to start eating in longer TX road races and one of the last to be left in the field, even as a 40-something-year-old racing with the Pro/1/2 category.