Tri Skills: Cycle Leg Etiquette
Updated: Aug 27, 2018
Here is a collection of useful hints and tips for the bike section, so hopefully, when you get to race day, you'll be better equipped to make sure there are no disasters and you can enjoy a stress free race.
The bike discipline in triathlons is the one that traditionally contributes the largest time element of a race. In pool-based triathlons the bike is usually around 20km or ‘sprint’ distance; at an average speed of 30 km per hour this takes 40 minutes to complete and double that if standard (Olympic) distance. There will be many different types of bike on display on race day, ranging from mountain bikes to specifically designed triathlon and time trial bikes. It doesn’t matter what bike you ride, provided it passes the standard safety checks, and it is quite normal to start with a mountain bike (although we would suggest changing to road tyres). Alternatively, many people choose to buy a good second hand road bike as the improved aerodynamics and reduced weight allow you to go much faster for the same effort.
Pre-race preparation equipment check
In the days leading up to your race it is extremely important to carry out some basic checks on the state and roadworthiness of your bike. Not only will a well serviced bike get you round the bike course faster, but it will also ensure that you pass the official bike check prior to being allowed into transition to rack your bike without any nasty surprises. We recommend that you carry out the following bike checks; if you are not confident to do these yourself then book your bike into the local bike shop for a service:
Handlebars are tight.
Seat (saddle) is tight and does not twist or tilt.
Brakes are working properly and not restricting the free rotation of the wheels.
Tyres are not excessively worn and are at the correct pressure depending on tyre width; this should be around 100-120psi for a road bike in dry conditions (80-100psi is better in the wet) and 60-50psi for a mountain bike.
Pedals can spin freely on their axle and are firmly tightened to the pedal arm (cranks). In turn check that the pedal arms are tightly fastened to the pedal axle (bottom bracket).
Gears: make sure that you can run through all the gears, from highest to lowest, smoothly and without any jumps or stiffness
Chain: check to see if it needs oiling.
Wheels are securely fastened to the bike, either by nut or quick release lever.
Finally, pick up your bike and gently shake it. Does anything sound loose or rattle? If so, find it and tighten or fix it.
Your bike is not the only piece of equipment that needs to be right for race day. Your helmet will also be checked by officials prior to you being allowed to rack your bike. They will want to see that your helmet complies with BTF or AGB safety standards and that it is the correct size for your head. This is an extremely important piece of safety gear and therefore it is paramount to have it sorted in advance of race day.
You may also choose to wear clip-in bike shoes for the race, but only if you have ridden with them many times prior and are totally confident in their use. If you are using clip-ins then check that the cleats are tightened securely and positioned correctly on the soles of the shoes and are not excessively worn.
A good race day check list for bike specific equipment should include:
Bike shoes /running shoes
Arm warmers (if cold)
Rubber bands (for quick transition)
Towel for transition and talcum powder – to dry feet whilst on the bike
Number belt /top with number attached
Pump, chain lubricant, puncture repair kit and a basic tool kit
Race day – setting up your bike
Once at your allocated bike racking slot you should set your bike into a low gear suitable to accelerate quickly when out on the bike course. If you are using clip-in shoes you have the option of either starting with these on or off the bike. Having them attached allows for a quicker transitions (it is far easier to run and jump onto your bike in bare feet than in cycling shoes with cleats on the bottom!) but requires significant practice prior to race day. For those using the 'shoes on the bike' technique, the pedal cranks should be set horizontal to the ground and can be held in this position using elastic bands. Give some thought as to which shoe you would prefer to have in a forward position. You can then loop a thin elastic band through the tab at the back of your shoe and then either (left side) over the quick release skewer on your rear wheel or (right side) over the top of the front derailleur. If you have your shoes the other way round you may have to use the bottle cage to secure the left shoe. If your shoes don’t have a tab at the back then just loop the band round the sole of the shoe. Make sure the Velcro strap(s) on the shoes are open and loose but that they are not likely to pull right through or get caught in your bike. You should have your helmet resting on your aero or handle bars orientated to facilitate quick application; ie, upside down, front end forwards, straps untwisted. If you intend to wear sunglasses then place these inside your helmet, again arranged for quick application.
Your number belt or top should be placed on top of your helmet in such a way that it can easily be put on. A good rule of thumb is to minimise what you need to do in transition as it will take less time and there are fewer things to go wrong. Finally, and arguably most importantly, memorize where your bike is in transition as it is very easy when tired and wet to run straight past it. Always walk or run through your transitions whilst warming up and pick out some clear landmarks to guide you to your bike slot and know your number.
The race - transition
After exiting the pool your focus should immediately turn to a smooth transition onto the bike. It is a good idea to start preparing for the bike during the last few lengths of your swim by gradually picking up your leg kick (unless it is already strong) to get the blood flowing to your lower limbs. Once out of the pool you need to locate your bike without any hitches; it is very easy to lose your bike amongst others if you are not thinking clearly and so end up running back and forward wasting essential time. Hence the importance of identifying landmarks during your warm up. In pool-based triathlons transition is typically very close to the pool exit so you will not have much time between ending the swim and getting on your bike, however unlike an open water triathlon you won’t have to deal with getting out of a wetsuit.
Once you have arrived at your bike and started to get kitted for the cycle leg, it is essential you put on your helmet and fasten it BEFORE unracking your bike otherwise you are liable for a time penalty. A little tip is to slide your fingers along the straps to the buckle which ensures a smooth fixing. Also check that your number belt is facing the correct way (front or rear depending on the race instructions). Once kitted, unrack your bike and run to the bike exit and beyond to the mount line, pushing bike either by the handle-bars or the saddle. If you are comfortable jumping onto your bike then mount this way, otherwise stop and mount. Jumping on is the quickest option, but as with all skills, it must be perfected through ongoing practice to improve confidence and speed!
If your shoes are already on your bike and held in position using elastic bands it may be possible to put your feet straight into your shoes without first placing them on top, this depends on how well your shoes stay open. It may take some considerable distance before you find a suitable point to get your feet into your shoes. Generally it is not critical to get your feet in straight away unless there is a significant hill early in the course. Ideally, wait for a slight downhill, freewheel and, using your hand to hold the shoe level and open, place your foot into the shoe and tighten the straps. Pedal again to regain some momentum, and then repeat for the other foot. You are now ready to really concentrate on the bike course ahead.
The bike stage
It is extremely likely in a pool-based triathlon that the transition area will be next to a main road. This emphasizes the need to be alert at all times on the bike; most triathlons are well marshalled but the roads are still open to the general public.
The majority of pool-based triathlons are non-drafting. Drafting simply means to shelter behind a fellow cyclist and thus save about 30% of your energy. In a non-drafting race you are obviously not allowed to do this, and the bike section is technically a time-trial. The drafting rules vary according to the type of race you are doing (see the BTF website for the current competitor rules or WTC website for Ironman / 70.3’s) but essentially there needs to be 10-12 metres of clear road between bikes and you have a maximum of 30 seconds to pass someone.
If you disobey these strict rules you are liable for time penalties and, for multiple infringements, even disqualification. In the end you are simply cheating yourself! Claiming not to be a BTF member and, therefore, ignorant of the rules is not a valid excuse...
During the bike stage try and pedal at close to your optimal cadence, usually about 90rpm, using your gears to maintain this. Make sure you have a water bottle on your bike and that you drink at regular intervals throughout. If you are prone to stomach problems whilst running it may be safer to drink more earlier on the bike and stop drinking 10-20 minutes before commencing the run. For sprint distance races water is all that is needed, and only take as much as you need to save on weight. It is also useful to get out of the saddle once every 10 minutes or so just to stretch out and stop yourself getting too stiff; for the remainder of the time you should focus on keeping as streamlined as possible.
Over the final kilometres of the bike it is time to start giving some thought to the final discipline, the run. If you are using clip-in shoes then around 200 metres before the dismount line you need to undo the straps of your shoes and take your feet out one by one and pedal with your feet sitting on top of your shoes. Just before the dismount line either lift one leg over your bike so you are standing on one pedal and ready to jump off at the dismount line and run with your bike into transition, or stop and quickly dismount your bike and run into transition. Similarly to jumping onto your bike, jumping off will save you valuable seconds but needs to be practised and perfected prior to race day. Again, finding your racking slot can be difficult if you have not located some landmarks to help guide you, so do not forget to do your preparation work whilst warming up! Do NOT unfasten your helmet until you have safely racked your bike, as again this will incur a time penalty, then quickly put on your running shoes and head for the run exit.