Question: I am interested in your thoughts on terrain management while riding the bike, particularly the use of power to establish the most efficient pedaling and use of energy to enable best results on the bike ride. I have read a lot about ‘flattening the course’ (holding the same power no matter the grade), and wonder if this is the best use of the power meter.
Your timing is ironic, as we tackled this very theme while at the Hawaii Training Camp, with the highly variable terrain that the Kona course provides. We went about tackling the best approach to provide the results we want. To fully answer, let’s first become aligned with our goals in riding. As basic as it seems, I think it is important, as we want to dispel the common myth that the best ride is the one that provides your best average power over a course.
This number is a metric, and one that may provide insights, but can be incredibly misleading. Let’s strip it down to basics, as there is no prize for those who produce the most power. The rewards go to those who riding fastest, then run off the bike. In fact, riding success is:
- Riding as fast as possible
- Minimizing cost / energy (so on the lowest power possible)
- Completing the ride and being able to run at a trained potential.
The optimal result is your best speed and lowest energy expenditure while leaving enough in the tank to run great.
With this in mind, to your question on how to deploy your resources over variable terrain.
Let’s imagine a hill that continues up a 4-5% grade for 1 km, then comes back down the other side for 1 km at the same grade. Riding this hill at the same power up the hill and down the other side will not yield optimal speed over the 2 km. Instead, pushing a little more power going up, with the grade enabling an easier production of power, then using the natural speed generated from the downhill, with a lower effort coming down, is by far the best approach. To truly optimize, you would also want to add input of gaining momentum at the crest of the hill, with a smooth and forceful two to five seconds of acceleration (ramping cadence and adding gears) to get to optimal speed as quickly as possible over the top of the hill. There are two simple rules to follow in this situation, and any time that a roller or hill ends:
- Any time the grade dissipates your wheels must accelerate.
- Don’t treat the literal top of a hill (the peak) as the end of the effort. Instead, treat the ‘top’ as the piece of the grade once you have got to good momentum and speed
In order to gain speed over a roller or crest of the hill we can use up to four tools:
- Cadence (grade dissipated and you add cadence in the same gear to accelerate the wheels)
- Gears (as the grade dissipated you add more tension on the chain via adding a gear, hence speed increases)
- Cadence and Gears (the most common: adding cadence, then adding gears behind as speed ramps)
- Standing: Drawing the bike over with 5-10 pedal strokes to gain speed quickly.
This is a high-value input into the bike to yield optimal speed.
Ironically, if you follow this pattern of subtle, yet smart distribution of power, you will be rewarded with your best speed. Despite producing a little more power on the grades, perhaps 10% more, your average power will be less. This is due to the considerably lower power needed on the downhill grades if you do a great job of terrain management.
At camp, we had many lightbulbs go bright in athlete’s minds as we played in terrain and allowed them to feel the flow and rhythm of smart terrain management. Success isn’t measured in average power, and great riding isn’t shackled by exact wattage. It is a feeling, almost a dance of allowing the wheels to flow and constantly seeking places to find speed, gain speed or regain momentum.
I hope this helps.