It's your first triathlon. You are excited but nervous! You have so many questions that only the race can teach you. Let's try answer a section of those questions by looking at the bike leg of the triathlon.
What Can You Expect?
First, what sort of race is it? Is it a sprint distance, energade type event? Or is it a standard Olympic distance race?
Bunch Riding ///
The sprint distance race will more than likely play host to a large field and it will be a draft legal race. The first aspect to consider is sitting in the bunches. Are you accustomed to riding in bunches?
Often, these packs are not well controlled so you need to be aware of your surroundings. Select the wheel you ride behind carefully! This is not designed to "put you off," merely to make you aware.
Work Ethic ///
Should you work or not? The unwritten law in cycling bunches is take your turn to work up front. Obviously, this depends on whether you can stay with the group you find yourself in and whether they can stay with you.
You may ask yourself what you do if the group is too weak for you. Yes, you would like to have fresh legs for the run. However, not at the expense of a bike split that is well below what you are capable of. Rather opt for riding at a pace you know you can maintain and hope you pick up another group, which will have a higher group speed.
Confidence can play a part too. If you do not feel confident enough to "go solo," sit tight and have a hard run. You learn from your races and your confidence develops.
Gear Selection ///
Some Things To Consider:
What is the course like? Is it flat/hilly? How strong are you?
Gear selection depends on the course profile, if you are sitting in a bunch or not, your strength on the bike. It is definitely advantageous if you can ride the course prior to the race. This will give you an idea what to expect.
Your cadence is important so select a gear that you can maintain around 90 rpm's. Obviously, this cadence will not apply if the course is hilly. World duathlon champion Benny Van Steelant is someone who follows this approach in his riding. He does not concern himself too much with the gear so long as he can consistently maintain around 90 rpms. Being small in stature, he tends to ride a lighter gear as opposed to a heavier gear.
The "old days" saw most tri-athletes go out and "mash the heavy gears." In other words, ride the heaviest gears possible.
This is not necessarily the best way to ride! Smaller riders often struggle to maintain the power output in heavy gears. They need to put the emphasis on lighter gears with higher leg speed. Compare riders like Jan Ullrich and Lance Armstrong or even Marco Pantani for example.
Ullrich is tall and powerfully built. He rides heavy gears. Armstrong is smaller while Pantani is smaller still. Armstrong has once again popularized the importance of leg speed. Armstrong and Pantani ride easier gears at a high leg speed. Both tend to be strong climbers - and one reason is because their cadence is high.
In my experience, too many tri-athletes in this country still ride a gear that is too heavy for them. How do I know? One can see they struggle to turn the pedals over and consequently the cadence is too low.
My point here is not to dissuade you from riding heavy gears. Raynard Tissink is someone who can successfully ride a heavier gear. Much of the reason for this is his high-power output. Raynard is particularly strong in the hip flexor area - where much of a cyclist's strength comes from.
For me, I have learned that if you get the optimum cadence for you, everything follows: your heart rate and your speed.
What Speed To Ride ///
I have often spoken to tri-athletes and cyclists about speed.
What happens if you ride a particular gear and ride at X speed but your cadence is lower than 90 for example on a flattish course. Do you drop a gear (i.e. ride a lighter gear) to get the cadence right? Sometimes you may notice when you do this, your speed drops slightly. What to do then?
I know Raynard chooses to stay in the heavier gear if this happens.
In the majority of instances (Raynard is an exception), a drop in speed because of a lighter gear means your leg speed in general needs to be improved and secondly the legs may already be fatigued from the heavier gear selection.
For you, ask yourself how strong your run is. If you are a strong runner, it makes sense to maintain the lighter gear at the expense of speed so your legs are fresher to run.
Be aware: riding too heavy of a gear for you can affect your run too.
Your legs may feel heavy and unresponsive. This is a sure sign your gear ratio did not suit your legs.
Gears On A Hill Or Hilly Course ///
Your aim on a hill is to keep a constant rhythm and leg speed. Ride a lighter gear and spin up the hills. You need to keep the legs fresh for the run.
However, I notice plenty tri-athletes spin such an easy gear that they are almost stationary! This tells me they lack the strength endurance needed to climb with power.
Basic Max Heart Rate Calculator
Another indicator is your HR. Keep your HR in the 85% range otherwise you can expend unnecessary energy on the hill-energy you will not get back!
Max Heart Using Tanaka Method
Learn more about your heart rate in Heart Matters: Are You Training Your Heart?
How To Pace Yourself ///
Like runners, cyclists often start like a bat out of hell and then gradually wither away! It is a useful exercise to record your HR profile during a race so you can see where you went too hard or too easy.
It is often a good idea to break the distance up. For a 20km ride, make it 2 by 10 km for example. You could even make it 4 by 5 km. Have a plan for each "stage" of the ride.
As an example, treat the first 5 km as a time to find your rhythm and feel comfortable. The next 5 km you could pick the pace up to 85%. The third 5 km could be a chance to 'rest' and the last 5 km, go back to 85% again. By rest, I mean just backing off slightly, giving your heart and body a chance to recover.
Why? So many tri-athletes learn the hard way and ride the bike leg "red-lining" the whole way. Needless to say, they fall short on the run. A triathlon is an exercise in "energy management." You can definitely "bonk" or "hit the wall" over this distance!
Another approach could be to "ease off" and recover in the last 5 km - preparing the body for the run, riding lighter gears and picking up the leg speed. In this approach, you would go hard in the middle part of the distance.
I have tried to emphasize that gear selection is largely dependent on you as a rider and the course profile. It is not always a good idea to copy the pros! Knowing your body and accepting its limitations are key to a solid, consistent bike leg of a triathlon.