8 Bike Tips for the Beginner Triathlete

It’s just like riding a bike they say… sure.

Most of us mastered keeping balance on a two wheeled man-powered vehicle as a child. However, the skills required for a leisure ride do not necessarily translate to the bike leg of a triathlon.

Jesse Vondracek, pro triathlete and coach, says all new triathletes should forget the idea that “it’s just like riding a bike” and approach cycling as something they’ve never done before. Working on simple techniques on the bike can have a huge impact on overall performance. By mastering the fundamentals one by one, Vondracek says a rider can increase safety, efficiency, and—yes—speed.”

Tip #1: Your Current Bike Will Do Just Fine

If you currently have a road bike, mountain bike or hybrid, then race on that bike! Many people (like me) have completed their first triathlon on a borrowed bike. Just be sure the bike fits you and that it is in safe working order, and you’ll be fine.

If you stick with this triathlon gig, your bike will one day become like a best friend. So, purchasing your first bike is not a decision you want to take lightly or rush into. Once you get the first race or two under your belt and decide if this sport is for you, then start researching the best bike for your goals and size.

Tip #2: Practice Your Basic Bike Handling Skills

It's inevitable that you'll need to drink from your water bottle, grab a snack and unwrap it, look over your shoulder or move down to your drops or aero bars during your race. Moving your body while riding fast is prime time for accidents. So, these skills should be practiced - and do it in a safe place, like an empty parking lot. It’s important that you feel confident riding with one hand on the handlebars and the other doing a task.

Another bike handling skill to master is braking. Many beginners do not realize that the two brakes on your bike work independently. The left brake is your front brake. Use only the front brake at high speed and your face makes friends with the pavement (aka endo). Ouch! Just remember, you should always gently squeeze both breaks.

Tip #3: Master the art of clipping in and out

Clipping your shoe directly into the pedal allows you to generate more power in your pedal stroke. If you are going to stick with triathlon or cycling, clip in pedals are great. However, it’s so not necessary to have clip-in pedals in order to race. You can use cages instead, or just traditional flat pedals. Clips are one more thing to learn and can be a bit intimidating! If you are not using clips, move on to tip #3.

If you do decide to use clip-in pedals, you should practice clipping and unclipping before you head outside to ride. You can practice either on a trainer or by leaning against a wall.

Once you’re comfortable with the clips, take the bike outside and practice starts and stops in your driveway or an empty parking lot. To clip-in, keep one foot on the ground, clip the other foot into the pedal while the at the 2 o’clock position. Push down on the pedal and start to roll out at the same time. Then once you are rolling, clip in your second pedal.

For stopping, slightly lean to the side you’re unclipping, twist your heel away from the bike to unclip and then set your foot down. Make sure your foot is free from the pedal before the bike comes to a stop.

Tip #4: Understand the Relationship between Shifting and Cadence. Shifting allows you to maintain (or increase) your speed most efficiently. The last thing you want is to get stuck in an uncomfortable gear and have to grind the pedals to maintain speed. That’s brutal on the legs, which you still need for the run portion of your race!

If shifting is new to you, then practice makes perfect. Your left hand will adjust the front gears, and your right will adjust the back. You’ll use your right hand adjustment much more frequently and you’ll feel a smaller difference in resistance. The left hand adjusts the big ring in the front, and you’ll notice a more considerable change when shifting in and out of the big ring.

When you first hop on the bike, you’ll want your bike geared down (a smaller gear in the front and larger gear in back). This makes pedaling quicker and easier, but less powerful. From there, shift up one gear one at a time until you reach your ideal cadence (speed of your legs), which should be relatively quick and steady, around 90 rpm.

Pro tip: Avoid cross chaining, or riding in your large chain ring and your largest gear on your cassette. Shift the front derailleur before this happens. If it’s happening, you’ll probably hear a clicking or grinding sound.

This article that will tell you everything you need to know about shifting different bikes.

Tip #5: Always follow the Rules of the Road

It’s imperative for every cyclist to know how to interact with traffic and to follow traffic laws. Know your responsibilities as a cyclist on the road. And yes, you should ride on the road (or a trail).

  • Sidewalks are not safe for bikes.

  • Always ride in a straight line with the flow of traffic.

  • Signal before you turn.

  • Do not run red lights.

  • Do not weave in and out of cars.

  • Use bike lanes when applicable.

Drivers have a lot of responsibilities on the roads as well, and they should give you 3 feet when passing. Many drivers do slow down until its safe to pass but unfortunately there are definitely some drivers who will get way too close when they pass you. Always keep your defenses high when on the road.

Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition has a Traffic Skills 101 Class,

Here's some info on the new safe passing law

And here you can find the rules of riding on the road.

Tip #6 Embrace the Hills

Repetitive hill training builds strength and cardiovascular fitness, and it’s also a great way to practice your shifting, cadence and bike handling skills.

Shift gears to maintain a steady cadence as you ride over rolling hills. When on a long hill, shift to an easier gear as you feel your cadence drop, likewise as you approach a turn. Use caution when shifting on hills as this is prime time to drop a chain if you shift when there’s too much pressure on the pedals. Again, just practice.

If it’s not too steep of a downhill and you feel confident and comfortable going fast, then skip coasting and pedal through the downhill. That’s free speed!

However, remember your braking skills when descending. Braking and cornering are amplified in downhill situations, so tease both brakes lightly as you approach a stop or a turn.

Tip #7: Review and Understand the Race Rules

If your triathlon is sanctioned by USA Triathlon, there’s quite an extensive list of rules you must follow. These are easy to comply with, if you know what they are. There are typically officials on the course issuing penalties to participants not doing as they should. Here’s a summary of the more relevant bike rules. You can find the complete list here.

  1. If you have a mechanical issue and decide to walk/run in, you must bring your bike with you.

  2. You must know the bike course before the race

  3. Participants must obey all traffic laws while on the cycling course

  4. You may not carry a headset, radio, headphones, personal audio device, or mobile phone.

  5. You must wear a helmet and it must be fastened before you mount the bicycle, and at all times when on the bike, and must not be unfastened until dismount.

  6. No Drafting. Keep at least 3 bike lengths between you and the bike in front of you. If you pass, you must complete the pass within 15 seconds.

  7. You must pass on the left (do not pass someone and then slow down – it’s not a rule, but a strong suggestion, you will not make friends on the course if you ride like this)

  8. Cyclists shall stay single file and keep to the right of the course unless passing.

  9. If someone is passing you, as soon as their front wheel passes your back wheel, you must concede and allow them to pass, and drop behind their draft zone. Don’t speed up when someone tries to pass you (on the bike that is – save this competitive fun for the run!)

Tip #8 Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate

As you’re riding along, with the wind in your face, you will not even realize how much you are sweating. So, make sure to hydrate throughout your ride. You don’t want to leave yourself underhydrated as you head into the run. Plus, it’s so much easier to eat or drink on the bike.

If you’re using an electrolyte drink, make sure to practice running after drinking, as some products do not sit well in the stomach. This is not something you want to discover on race day.

Same thing goes for nutrition. You will likely near the one-hour mark of your race while on the bike, so that’s an ideal time to take in some fuel. Make sure to practice your nutrition during your brick workouts so you know what will sit well with you.

Bike racing is incredibly fun and rewarding. As you can see, there is a bit more to it than just riding a bike. However, time in the saddle is all it takes to feel confident and powerful on the bike leg.

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