Specialization in the Sport of Cycling
Cycling is a sport not about brute strength, but rather a high speed chess game. You leverage your abilities against your cunning and your capacity to suffer. As the sport progresses, riders are becoming more and more specialized, so below I discuss the 3 main styles of racing and how to improve them.
Be a Sprinter!
No matter what you are most talented at, be it climbing, time trialing, or sprinting, never forget the importance of a solid sprint. No one will ever tell you that I am a sprinter (at my best I was 6’2” and 138 LBS with under 4% body fat), but that does not mean I was a slouch in the sprint game! It is really just all about three things: tactics, watts/kg, and frontal area. The rider who has the smallest frontal area, generates the highest watts per kilogram, and has the best tactics will (without fail) win the bunch sprint.
Now the watts/kg aspect is something your body is more predisposed for (due to type 2 muscle fiber density, weight, and other physiological attributes), but it is also something that can be improved. Losing weight or training the neuromuscular energy system (through sprint efforts) will aid in your attempt to become the next Manx Missile. Frontal area (with respect to your Watts/kg) is a characteristic you can change a little by tweaking your sprinting form. Lowering your shoulders and moving farther forward will decrease your wind resistance and also help you utilize more muscle groups. Cavendish’s small frontal area (accompanied with some serious watts) is part of the reason he was as dominant as he was in the bunch sprint.
The final aspect of a good sprint, tactics, is likely the easiest to improve as it just takes practice to figure out what works for you. However, some basic pointers would be: never be at the front in the last fourth of the race, focus on conserving your energy throughout the entirety of the race, and in the waning miles follow the rider you feel has the best chance to win the sprint. Using those tips and some training I have scored many a field sprint victory despite my size and other strengths.
Be a Time Trialist!
Similar to the sprinting, there is no reason you should not have at least decent time trial power! Though you may not be the best rider against the clock, if you wish to race bikes well at any level, you will have to be able to muster at least a semi-acceptable time trial. The most important aspects in the TT, or TT style efforts, are frontal area, watts/kg, and equipment choices. If you are already rocking the best equipment in the world (or are poor as heck), then look to the other two areas for your gains; however, little aero improvements can mean a lot at the end of a TT or road event. For example: electrical taping cables closer to the frame or wearing an aero helmet are two big (and “relatively” cost effective) ways to improve your TT time without spending thousands of dollars.
Frontal area is similar to equipment, in that you are trying to optimize your system to cheat the wind. A solid bike fit can save upwards of 30 watts, an amount not easily gained through changing equipment alone. And lastly, watts/kg: if you have poor watts per kilo for the TT, then you just need to ride more and focus on medium to long intervals. Like sprinting, there is a certain amount of physiological predisposition to time trialing, but with proper VO2 and aerobic training, you can crank out some decent time trial results.
Be a Climber!
At some point you will have to go up a hill, if you are a “roadie” at least! The most important aspects for going up hill are system weight (weight of the rider + equipment) and watts/kg. No matter what, you will get up a hill faster with a lower system weight. It is a basic tenant of physics: a certain Issaac Newton’s 3rd Law can be studied for a primer on why this is the case. So to get up a hill faster just drop weight on your bike or yourself as either way will help you drop your buddies up the hills. If the climb is short, then it will necessitate a sprint style effort to get up it (high watts/kg for a short amount of time), but if it is longer you will need a more TT style watts/kg output. And a final note for improving your climbing speed is to just get out and practice it!
In the end, it is important to know what your strengths and weaknesses are on the bike. With that information you can improve your weaknesses and use your strengths to your advantage come race day. And if you have the opportunity to change your riding style to the area you live in, suggestions follow: generally if you live somewhere flat a time trialist/sprinter style is preferable whereas if you live somewhere hilly, a time trialist/climber style will do better. Find out more about this topic. But, in the end, you can find success no matter your skill set, you just have to look for events that suit you! So become the most well rounded rider possible and have fun kicking butt!