It’s early March in Northern California and after an exceptionally dry February, El Nino is roaring back for a two week stretch of downpours. I’m standing in a school parking lot pushing my bike sideways at a forty degree angle to test the adhesion limits of both my tires and the oily/wet playground before I ask fifteen new bike racers to start working on counter-steering drills. I make some adjustments to the day’s program in my head for the weather and we go to work, transforming stiff body language and distrust into smiles, risk taking, and play. This is my sixth winter weekend holding a skills clinic – this is the most rewarding part of my varied work coaching cyclists of all skills and backgrounds.
The winter months we like to slide into long easy rides and the assumption that we’ll be ready for the higher mental focus and skill level needed for racing or even hard group rides simply by osmosis, but this is one of the best times to work on both skills, balance and neuromuscular improvements, either by casual play with friends (road bikes on dirt, anyone?) or structured sessions, especially to recover and release stress from hard fitness-oriented base training. Spending a couple sessions a week focusing on skills and “doing your homework” really pays off the first time you hit a corner shoulder-to-shoulder with another rider in the local winter criterium, or for that matter go to that first mid-week CX race or track league. When the intensity rises, you want to be thinking about the race, not your cornering or what’s happening in the paceline. Making these things instinctive, even for experienced athletes, has a huge payoff in energy savings and the ability to take advantage of a changing situation in a race.
Our skills clinics are one great way to focus on honing your skills at any time during the season. We also wanted to share some simple cycling skill drills that you can try on your own.
“Under pressure, you don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training. That’s why we train so hard.”
-Anonymous Navy SEAL
Cornering drills are a great place to start. As a coach, I can quickly evaluate a rider’s comfort on the bike. As a rider, you’ll be able to feel that for yourself. Cornering drills can teach a range of techniques like counter-steering, taking the proper angle into a turn, feeling the behavior of a peloton in a turn, and many more. Cornering is also the specific skill set that typically stresses the new rider the most. We do it all the time on a bike, and unless you came from motorsports most of us have no idea how to turn safely and efficiently in a race situation. I personally do little drills all the time when casually riding solo (doing my skills homework) and enjoy counter-steering a fully loaded commuter bike complete with panniers down a local canyon while musing about where to weight my body to compensate for the 40 pounds of laptop, etc. in the bags.
Try for yourself:
Building a simple course on hard grass is a great way to start! Create a simple L shape and envision approaching the corner wide, then crossing the apex, then looking where you want the bike to go as you come out of the turn. This translates into bike racing at every level, and can be progressed onto higher speeds and paved surfaces very quickly.
When you have the cornering down, moving to group skills is a natural progression. Group riding is a fantastic thing to work on in a clinic venue, this can be all the way from standing in a mock peloton with clubmates talking about a basic paceline, to riding a six or eight person rotating echelon behind a scooter with a camera. The best part of being in a clinic setting is the ability to stop and give immediate feedback without shouting up a line of riders at 25 mph etc. Taking the time to break and discuss what the objective is or to give constructive feedback is worth its weight in gold.
Try for yourself:
On your next ride with friends or teammates, challenge yourself and the group to ride a perfect rotation. It sounds simple, but it’s a lofty goal for most amateur cyclists!
In Tempo Endurance race skills clinics, we usually move from group riding to sprints as the level of awareness, skill, and balance on a bike rises. This is another category of work that can be a small part of a skills day or the sole focus of a full-day clinic, especially if you are moving from sprint mechanics and basics into sprint and race finishing tactics.
Watch any beginning race and you’ll see some unbelievably varied sprint form as well as some very frightening habits. When learning sprint form, it’s best to start with the basic mechanics. In Tempo Endurance clinics, we move from very basic control of your bike while stomping on the pedals to proper form to get the most speed out of your body in the finish of a race.
EVERYBODY needs sprint work, not just sprinters or track racers! It’s a key skill to cross to a breakaway, attack, finish out of a climbing group, or start a pursuit or time trial. Why not be as efficient and fast as possible in whatever type of racing you do?
Try for yourself:
For sprint work I like to focus on one basic concept to start: NAILING the first step with perfect body mechanics. With your pedal at 2 pm, keep your chest over your bars, your head up, and step into the first pedal stroke. I’ll often have my athletes roll slowly and just do the first pedal stroke in a big gear 15 times or so just to sort out the biomechanics, find their best forward leg, and get used to driving the bike forward efficiently with power and explosion. Try doing this with a friend videoing you and get feedback!
Many people think of obstacle courses when they think of skills training, but the beauty of it is you can use any safe parking lot for most of the work and incorporate natural features like traffic islands, painted lines, etc. When we move to contact drills though, I prefer to find rideable grass on firm ground. Mentally it’s SO MUCH easier to commit to bumping another rider, or intentionally rubbing their wheel when the consequences aren’t so severe! Contact with others while riding/racing, while it sounds frightening, is one of the most fun, empowering, and useful skills to work on.
Try for yourself:
Find some nice grass and create pinch zones, race courses, tire bump areas, and the granddaddy of them all, the Circle Of Death, that most people love just for the name alone! Use your imagination and the terrain, have fun, make it challenging!
If all that isn’t fun enough, specific situational practice drills such as bottle handoffs, hopping obstacles, barriers, or steps if it’s a cx focused session, or anything else you can come up with are always a blast.
I love playing a game picking up tennis balls from the ground and making baskets into a bucket or bag. You can always tell who is doing their flexibility work and the fearless junior racers usually win! This is very similar to contact drills in placing a focus on play, which tricks an athlete into going far outside of his or her comfort zone on a bike. Pay attention to body language from start to finish: hips will relax, shoulders and arms will loosen, and even peripheral vision will improve!
Changing the Focus
Every skills clinic I’ve coached, supported, or attended has ended the same way: the smiles are everywhere and ear to ear. No matter the skill level riders started with, ever attendee leaves with free speed, sometimes subtly and sometimes in a huge “ah hah!” moment. Awareness of others and the riders’ own bodies rises dramatically. And the improvement in the group dynamics, especially for racing teams or organizations, is a huge opportunity to grow, trust, and work together.
I’d urge you to take a weekend off of our nearly year-round racing schedule to address your limiters. Try a few things at home or bring together your team or friends for a mini camp focused on fun and riding at a higher level rather than on fitness building. You might be very surprised at your mindset in the next race or group ride!
Interested in working with us to organize a skills clinic?