Why Technical Cycling Matters in Triathlon – Part I

TriDot Triathlon Training Technical Cycling

As triathletes, we prefer long, flat straightaways. That’s what our bikes were made for after all. Unfortunately, the real world isn’t always as conducive to how we’d prefer to ride. There are a multitude of race courses out there in the triathlon wilderness amok with sharp turns and wild descents. If you don’t know how to handle them you’ll be hindering your overall race performance and, even worse, potentially putting yourself in harm’s way. Technical cycling matters in triathlon and here’s why:

AP = NP

The less technical your cycling is, the harder it’s going to be to keep pace. For any event lasting over an hour (which last time I checked is virtually every triathlon in existence), it’s crucial to maintain effort level as consistently as possible. In cycling, and by aid of a power meter, this means posting your power read-out graph on Facebook as a nice, level straight line. What you don’t want is some spout-out data that looks more like an illustration from an EKG machine (gets less likes on Facebook too).

What does consistent power have to do with technical riding? Simple really. Imagine a scenario where two different cyclists take the same sharp turn.

Rider one, Billy, is experienced and has seen this right-hand 90-degree turn before. He approaches wide, following the invisible line he knows will pull him through seamlessly. He only brakes slightly during the approach, points his right knee outward, and then leans his bike into the turn while keeping his torso over its center of gravity. As a result, Billy only loses about 30 percent of his speed, is required to only gear down once or twice in his rear cassette, and is back to fluidly pedaling at race pace in no time.

Rider two, Timmy, who had actually been hot on Billy’s tail, naively approaches the same turn. He doesn’t bank wide enough, has no lean, and by the time he realizes his speed is too much to stay on the road, there’s zero chance of salvaging any semblance of efficiency. Consequently, Timmy is required to brake hard mid-way through the turn and shift down to his front small chain ring. He loses a whopping 75% of his speed.

Gearing back up to his original race pace takes triple the time it took Billy. Timmy works hard and impressively catches back up to Billy, eventually even surpassing him. But it takes a toll. Timmy is a stubborn workhorse so he holds his lead strong … that is, until the next turn.

The picture I’ve painted here is obvious. Billy, the technical rider, is a better triathlete than the slightly stronger Timmy. His cycling ability has made him faster on a challenging course, his power efficiency is superior, and he’ll have more left in the tank for the run.

The proof is found in the numerical pudding. All we need to do is compare Average Power (AP) to Normalized Power (NP).

AP is simply the average power sustained over the entire course of cycling time. NP, on the other hand, is an advanced averaging method intended to compensate for riding conditions in order to give you a better depiction of power expenditure.

To better understand these values, let’s say you coast for one minute at 100W and then hammer for the next minute at 300W. Your raw AP over the two-minute time period is 200W. Your NP, however, will be higher. This is because your effort level over the two-minute period was overall much higher than if you were to cycle consistently at 200W. NP is a better reflection of what kind of effort level you had to expend depending on the situation. It’s extrapolated across the overall riding time into one nice, neat number.

Did that example sound familiar? What do you think Timmy’s AP vs. NP comparison chart is going to look like? Probably not very good. Billy, on the other hand, will have AP and NP numbers much closer in equality. This is why it’s so important to compare your AP and NP after a hard time trial or race. The comparison will inform you of how variable your effort level was. There’s a quantity for this comparison and it’s called the Variability Index (VI), which is simply your NP divided by AP. Obviously the closer your VI is to 1 the better.

And this is why technical cycling matters so much in triathlon. Since an even output of power is so critical to effective triathlon racing – which includes handling turns, descents, turnabouts, and short inclines, the better you are at taking on these technical challenges, the less variability in effort you’ll be expending, and thus the more consistent (i.e. faster) your performance will be.

In Part II of this topic we’ll discuss the other reason why technical cycling matters in triathlon and how you can improve your bike handling skills.


TRIDOT TAKEAWAY:

Technical cycling in triathlon matters because better bike handling entails less variability in power output. In turn, smooth turns equate to greater consistency and energy conservation.


TALK WITH TRIDOT:

Do you compare your NP with your AP? How different are they on long threshold intervals? What reasoning do you have for the difference in numbers?


Sources:

Garmin. “What is Normalized Power?”

https://support.garmin.com/support/searchSupport/case.faces?caseId=%7B1b...


JARED MILAM is a professional triathlete, TriDot coach, and member of the Tri4Him Pro Team. He has 16 years of competitive running experience and 11 years of competitive triathlon experience with a half Iron PR of 3:59 and a full Iron PR of 8:30. Coaching under the TriDot system since 2011, Jared loves working with aspiring triathletes of all ages and performance levels.