Accepted Truths Are Sometimes False

For convenience, riders and coaches accept certain truths regarding bike fit, tactics, training and health. Some popular beliefs include: Athletes need plenty of sleep; they must use the right equipment for the job; set the saddle straight and level; bike dimensions should be proportioned to the body; high aerobic power is an absolute advantage. The list goes on. These rules are engrained in a cyclists mind, but they are not absolute. I’ve seen enough exceptions among my clients and acquaintances that I advise not blindly following such rules.

Racing Cyclists Need Plenty of Sleep

On the average, healthy humans need about eight hours of sleep nightly. Serious athletes generally thrive on an hour or two more, but Dave consistently won prizes in well-attended races month after month on four and a half hours of shut eye. That’s all he had ever slept. Dave was always energetic, vivacious, happy, and he was fast.

The Moral: Few riders are actually average. Get enough sleep to feel consistently energetic, but don’t force yourself to get more.

The Right Equipment for the Job

Once upon a time, there was a powerful wizard named Robert Leibold who could cause a road race to appear almost anywhere. One of his greatest tricks was a two-race weekend in the Trinity Alps in far northwestern California. One year, a young contender arrived at the Saturday event without his cycling shoes. Like a kid in a nightmare, he went to the line with clipless pedals and running shoes. The rest of the field laughed as he tried to settle his shoes on the pedals, but the laughter turned to anguish as our young hero, afraid to contest the sprint without cleats, rode away at the end for a solo victory. The next day our hero returned with his proper cycling shoes and won again. He upgraded soon after. I’d love to say that the moral is that it’s not about the equipment and you should just ride your heart out with whatever you can scrape together, but that’s not it, unless you are that kid.

The Moral: Sometimes someone in your field outshines the competition so completely that it doesn’t matter what they ride.

If You Can’t Stick With the Plan, Make It Easier

Gary has been training consistently since 2011. When he first started with me, it was not clear he would be able to stick with a plan for a month, much less four years. He was in lousy shape as he hadn’t ridden in a long time. He said he wanted to get fit, but again and again he ended up too busy to train. He skipped sessions because he was tired and repeatedly got so discouraged that he didn’t even try to train for many days at a time. Each time this happened, I adjusted his program to better fit his life, giving him shorter rides, more rest days, anything I could think of to make the plan easier to follow. I figured once he got into a training habit, we could add volume. Again and again he went off the rails. Finally after a year or so I told Gary that since it didn’t seem like he was going to follow any plan I made, I’d just make him a tough plan, one suited for an aspiring club and century rider, one that would get him fit as quickly as possible. I figured he’d quit for good. Instead, he took the challenge. Knowing that the plan was hard and would make him fast, he followed it closely. Now he rides in the strong group on shop rides and finishes centuries and multi-day tours with style.

The Moral: While being “too busy to train” generally means the plan is unrealistically high in volume or intensity, sometimes it really means the rider is not motivated because the training seems too easy or the goals too low.

Set the Saddle Straight and Level

I’ve occasionally seen riders who, due to leg length discrepancies or back deformities, applied more pressure on one side of the saddle than the other, or wore off the leather on just one side of the nose. In some of those cases turning the saddle a few degrees away from the rubbed side or shimming the rails to create a tilt eliminated saddle discomfort.

The Moral: Normal bike fit rules apply to symmetrical people. If you have an asymmetrical body, don’t be afraid to twist the bike to match. Given that riders rarely sit on the very tail or nose of the saddle, it doesn’t make sense to set all saddles “level” from nose to tail. Setting the portion the rider actually sits on close to level usually works.

Giants Need Big Bikes

Generally, bigger riders need bigger frames, wider bars, and longer cranks, but check your assumptions before installing them. A tall rider doesn’t need wide bars because he or she is tall, unless he or she also has correspondingly wide shoulders. Generally a rider with longer legs will do better with longer cranks, but not always. Ideal crank length also depends on some other factors such as flexibility and, believe it or not, foot size. I did a bike fit for James, a rider who was six-foot four with a 36-inch inseam. He came in with reasonable-for-his-height 177.5 millimeter cranks but we were having a terrible time getting his pedaling smooth. If I put his saddle at a good height for smooth movement through the bottom of the pedal stroke, the top was choppy. If I raised the saddle enough to get smooth movement over the top, the bottom got ugly. Neither cleat adjustment nor saddle fore-aft nor tilt could correct the problem. There was no good saddle height, until when we got him on 172.5 mm cranks. Then his pedaling become smooth as silk. I should mention that despite his height, James wore tiny little size 39 shoes.

The Moral: Bike parts should be sized proportional to body dimensions—however, it’s not always obvious which dimensions to consider. Flexibility will also affect the ideal fit. Commercial fitting systems and bike-fitting rules of thumb are not sensitive enough to deal with individual issues, so be willing to deviate from standard proportions if they don’t seem to be working for you.

Altitude Tents Make Riders Faster

Most riders will achieve substantial gains in VO2-max, hematocrit and performance after using hypoxic tents according to suggested protocols. I was surprised when Jon told me he had spent a lot of money on a tent and used it according to the instructions, yet had seen no improvement in performance. A bit of digging found the reason. Jon’s tent was functioning correctly but he had no room left to benefit from hypoxia. As a commercial pilot, Jon was already getting many hours every week of hypoxic exposure. He flew regularly at cabin pressures corresponding to 6,000-8,000 feet (1,800-2,400 m) and had been doing so for many years. He was as altitude adjusted as he could get.

The Moral: Don’t adopt training methods just because they work for other people. Consider the mechanism by which a trick is supposed to help and whether it is likely to benefit you.

Yoga Improves Flexibility

When a club rider complains of tight hamstrings, someone is bound to pipe up to say “You should stretch” or “You should try yoga,” followed by a story of how his or her own fabulous experience. Stretching often, but not always, solves tight muscle problems. In the early 1990s, Derek told me that he had tight hamstrings, and he had done yoga for years trying to fix them to no avail. His hamstrings always hurt and never got any looser. He tried more frequent yoga to build on the progress he made each session before the muscles could shrink back again. Unfortunately, that made them tighter rather than looser.

It turned out Derek had what is now known as yoga butt, an upper hamstring injury caused by repeatedly stretching an already long, weak muscle. He kept stretching and he kept tearing the hamstring attachment. Rather than getting looser, he was building up scar tissue and getting tighter. What he really needed to do was rest and then strengthen the muscle, but this was 20 years ago, and we didn’t know as much then as we do now about the benefits and dangers of stretching.

Morals: 1) If something is not working after a reasonable amount of time, try something else. 2) When stretching, do it gently, to the point of feeling a bit of pull but no pain, and don’t stretch muscles that have been injured in the past few days.

If You Exercise Enough, You Won’t Get Heart Disease

Studies show that endurance exercise reduces the risk diabetes, obesity, heart disease and cancer. Occasionally, a story surfaces about ultra marathon runners getting heart problems as they get older or that endurance athletes who don’t use enough sunscreen get skin cancer. Still, you could be forgiven for believing that a lifelong devotion to endurance training will protect you from pretty much every disease of old age, but protection is not prevention. Healthy eating and endurance training are not panaceas.

I helped Pete win a masters’ national cyclocross championship. A few years later his maximum heart rate declined rapidly, and his chest started to hurt during hard exercise despite intelligent eating and training. I sent him to his doctor and the physician basically said, “It’s a good thing you came in today as you might have died soon.” The visit resulted in cardiac bypass surgery shortly thereafter. Pete had smoked in his youth, which might have contributed to his blocked coronary arteries, but genetics were likely the main issue. All his male relatives either had surgery or died of heart disease before their fiftieth birthdays. Pete’s exercise and eating habits bought him 15 extra healthy years.

The Moral: Exercise and diet can have amazing protective effects, but nothing can protect you from the mistakes of youth or a bad genetic hand. If you have symptoms of heart disease, get checked out even if you have always been fit.

Winners Need Skills, Fitness and Nerve

In the mid-1990s Narda was one of the first women to race masters in Northern California and, in fact, in the whole country. A few times she had to talk promoters into including a race for masters women by recruiting riders and promising that they would all show up, but only if they could have their own field. Narda was a strong time trialist but she had a weak sprint and some anxiety about pack riding, cornering and descending. Nonetheless, she managed to win many district and a few national medals in those early days of master women’s racing. Most of her wins came in fields of less than ten riders with only one or two of those strong enough to challenge her. She got used to winning those races and she liked it. Then the popularity of cycling began to rise, other riders began to improve their fitness and skills, and Narda started getting beaten routinely. Now, a decade later, she has overcome her fears and started to correct her weaknesses. She has also started winning again.

The Moral: Winners don’t have to be phenomenal or even good at everything. They just have to be stronger than the competition. As competitors improve, winners rise to the challenge.

Racers Need a Killer Instinct

It’s true that you have to want to win badly enough overcome the discomfort of hard riding. Additionally you are unlikely to podium unless you want to win enough to be willing to take that pleasure away from others. However, strong finishes are not the only measure of success in bike racing. Kelsey liked the dance, pedaling fast with a pack, the way only a Pro/1/2 can. For him, the experience was the reward. He trained hard enough to keep up and no harder, and he came out of every race nearly ecstatic simply from the thrill of participation in the dance of speed and risk.

Aerobic Power Confers Nothing but Advantages

In general, the more power you can generate aerobically, the easier it is to keep up with or outdistance the pack. Sometimes though, power can be a disadvantage. Early in my racing career I often attended races with Ryan. He was a spindly thin guy with not much aerobic power. In time trials, I always beat him by large margins. In head-to-head sprints we were decently matched, but in races, especially windy ones, he beat me routinely. How?

Ryan was a consummate wheel sucker. Lacking power, he couldn’t get to the ends of races except by perfectly drafting most of the time, and he knew it. He could and did ride closer to the side of the road than anyone else, even on and off a broken edge if that was required to optimize a draft. By contrast, I had some aerobic power to spare so I didn’t have to put myself in those risky spots. Unlike Ryan, I could survive a few minutes in the wind and I often did. I didn’t do anything that felt hard, but little by little I used up my strength advantage. By the end of a race, Ryan had more of a sprint than most of the field, myself included. He picked up prizes and upgrade points while I finished a few spots behind. Being weaker forced him to ride better just to finish, but once he learned that, physically stronger riders no longer had an advantage in flat road races.

The Moral: Don’t squander your strength. Develop and use your pack skills and cornering so you don’t use your great sprint to close gaps or your aerobic power to get away with inefficient riding.

Stick to Your Training Zones

The vast majority of riders will benefit from zone training. Formulas for zones, which can be calculated as percentages of maximum heart rate, lactate threshold heart rate, functional threshold power or some combination of those can be found in many training books and web sites. It’s too bad they won’t work for everyone. My client Dan consistently came top three in very competitive fields, but rarely trained in zones calculated by any of the standard methods. He found that endurance training in a normally calculated “Zone 2” was just too tiring, so he trained roughly 10 beats per minute lower than the standard zone, and he won.

The Moral: Standard zones don’t apply to everyone. Zone training allows a rider to complete a large volume of high-quality training day after day without excessive fatigue. Adjust zones to achieve that goal, even if it means training easier than the normal formulae. There are no Brownie points for training at high heart rates. In general, top riders in excellent shape will do their endurance training at a lower heart rate as a percentage of max or LT compared to less accomplished riders.

Maximum Heart Rate Can Be Calculated from Age

The average maximum heart rate in a large group of healthy athletes really will be close to 210 minus half of age, which is about the same as 220 minus age for younger athletes but starts to deviate as riders age. On the average, you’ll be comfortable with one foot in an ice bath and the other in boiling water. Ninety-six percent of athletes’ maximum heart rates are within 15 or 20 beats of the average for their age, so the formulae are useless for setting up training zones, and even being outside of the common range is not necessary a problem. Mac, a man in his fifties, had an LT that hovered between the mid-90s and 105 bpm. I gave him normal zones in terms of percentages of maximum and LT heart rate, which meant that I was telling him to ride with his heart rate in the 90s and below much of the time, with hard efforts up to 110 bpm. As you might expect, Mac found keeping his heart rate that low challenging, but he was the sort of fellow who listens to experts and does his best to follow directions. After a couple of years, he won the district’s Best All-Round Rider in a competitive age group, beating out several well known heroes who had been racing and winning for decades.

The Moral: Each rider needs to test his or her own heart rates or power profile to set up training zones, and you should obey the upper limits of your calculated zones even if they seem low.

The Moral of the Story

Humans like absolute rules—do x, and you’ll get y. You must do this thing. You must not do that. Absolute rules make the world simple. Once you accept the rules for some particular activity, you don’t need to think any more. That frees your mind to consider other things. Unfortunately, many of the accepted rules of training, tactics and bike fit are not absolute. Each of them applies for many but not all riders.

If training is going great and you are getting stronger or maintaining top form, you can have confidence in the choices you’ve made. If you are not doing so well, adopt some more of the cycling rules of thumb, but at the same time, examine your assumptions about what you are already doing. Are the things you are doing because you know that all cyclists need to do them really helping you? If not, be willing to change them.

Scott Saifer, M.S. and the coaches of Wenzel Coaching share with their clients the benefits of their many years of riding and coaching experience, including their knowledge of the many exceptions to the accepted truths of cycling. To inquire about working with Scott or any of the other Wenzel Coaches, visit us on the web at or call 503-233-4346.

This article first appeared in the October 2015 issue of ROAD Magazine.