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Nearly, but not quite

Close, but no cigar. The finest of margins can often mean the difference between making the podium or even getting the win. In fact it doesn’t even need to be a placing; for some people it could be the difference between breaking the 20 minute mark in a 10 mile TT or getting a course PB.

Beyond the training – you’ve put in the hours, followed the programme, fittest you’ve ever been – a PB or win is surely on the cards, or is it? Many cyclists overlook the other variables that make bike racing such a complex sport. And it’s those variables that will give you the best possible chance, bringing all the hard work together with a clinical execution on the day.

Take Milan San Remo in 2017. Both Julian Alaphillipe and Peter Sagan could have won. I bet they went over the final meters of that race in their heads again and again. (This probably isn’t the best example of what I’m getting at, but I love this picture and the race itself so wanted to share it.)

What I’m getting at is that it really does pay to be detailed in your prep – and I don’t mean just lubing your chain. You can’t just rely on your training to get you the result or to achieve the goal you want.

Speaking from personal experience I’ve been both very diligent and not so diligent in the past.

In the 2016 Tour of Cambridge Chrono TT I won by only 4 seconds, and I largely put that result down to looking at the start and finish of the course very closely. This was the second year of the event and the finish line was still close to the main complex with a tight technical run in. From watching some earlier starters I knew they were losing time from taking the wrong lines and not maximizing their speeds through this section. I’m pretty sure I got those 4 seconds during the closing sections.

In contrast, when I raced the National 25 in 2018 I took a wrong turn and had to go the whole way round a roundabout rather than take the first exit, which lost me vital seconds and maybe a 46 min 25 mile PB. It may have even cost me a first vet medal. I hadn’t looked at the course properly and made the poor assumption that it was a simple out and back course.

And more recently, towards the end of last year I competed in the Vuelta Mallorca which is a 4 day stage race. I ended up coming second overall in the general classification by 10 seconds – that 10 seconds was basically lost on stage 2 which was an individual TT. This was largely down to a lack of course recce where a change of pacing and knowing when to moderate my effort would have really saved time – it could have meant the difference between first and second!

So a course recce is something that is always a must – even if you can’t look at the whole course then at least try to look at some aspects of it as that’s better than nothing. It could be decisive and end up saving you valuable seconds, as my own experience demonstrates.

Which brings us back to the importance of visualisation. Even if you know the course it makes sense to go over it in your head pre-race, just to remind yourself of the critical parts. As I have said in a previous post, visualisation can really pay dividends. You can re-play over the previous times you have raced the course and focus on what went well and what didn’t. This will help instill some virtual muscle memory or mental programming of how you might shape up for a particular bend or what sort of power delivery you think would be optimal, given you might have gone into the red the last time you went up the hill or drag.

And then there is your equipment.

Take your drivetrain, I joked about chain lube but it’s been tested that a dirty unlubricated chain can cost you 1-2% of your watts lost in the dirt, some articles I’ve read suggest it could be even more than this.

Tyre pressure and the tyres themselves are also a big variable. Pump them up too much (or not enough) and it can not only make the ride more uncomfortable but could be costing you speed. Same with the choice of tyre, there is a fine balance between speed and durability. As ever it will depend on the rider but it’s something you can experiment with to find what is ideal for you, given your size and the way you ride.

Pinning numbers is another big one. The amount of times I’ve seen badly pinned numbers acting like a parachute on the back of a rider causing massive amounts of drag. There’s no excuse – especially with number pockets being such a common feature, it’s a no brainer this is going to optimise your overall performance.

I’m picking out some of the most obvious, no cost examples here to get the point across but the list goes on – especially if you are willing to spend money. I’ll finish on one that again isn’t going to cost you a penny and one we’ve all got wrong – even the pros do from time to time – and that is pacing.

Gauging your effort and judging when to go full gas or when to back off and keep some of that powder dry is a skill that takes practice and, as ever, the more you do something the better you get. This is especially important if you are a time triallist or like to attack and get away in road races. Get your pacing wrong and at the very least it can cost valuable seconds or the win (see Milan - San Remo 2017). Get it horribly wrong and it can make for one of those days when you wish you didn’t race bikes or do any sort of sport at all.

What I have described above all aligns with the whole concept of marginal gains in that if you ensure optimisation of all known variables it will lead to maximum performance.

So the takeaway is that these sorts of refinements can really save you time, and, couple that with greater fitness, should result in quicker times, more speed or even the much coveted win.

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