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What commuter cyclists can learn from Chris Hoy

Team GB sprinters and two ordinary cyclists

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Britain's cycling heroes in Beijing were a class apart, but they showed techniques that anyone who rides a bike - whatever their ability - can benefit from.

The past few years has seen a boom in cycling in the UK, with one in four regularly getting on the saddle according to Cycling England - to get to work, enjoy the countryside or race for clubs.

Another surge in interest is expected as the sport finds itself on the front and back pages, basking in the achievements of Team GB in Beijing where cyclists have won 14 road and track medals - nearly half the nation's total.

Reaching speeds of 70 km/hr is not advisable, of course (let alone achievable for most riders). Elite cyclists like Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton are more concerned with speed than safety and comfort, which are two key considerations for non-competitive cyclists, but there are lessons to be learnt.

BE AWARE OF THE SLIPSTREAM

Track cyclists using slipstream
The cyclist behind saves energy going at the same speed
Television viewers will have seen compatriots in the road races taking it in turns to go in front, and cyclists in the sprint events playing cat and mouse at the start of the race. That's because there is an energy saving of up to 30% for the cyclist that tucks in behind.

Jonny Clay, bronze medallist in the team pursuit at the Sydney Games in 2000, says: "In front you are punching the hole in the air and what's created behind you is drag, a vortex of air which means you have less effort to put in. But your front wheel has to be within a foot of the rear wheel of the rider in front."

Cycling on the UK's busy streets is hazardous enough without riders trying to get right up behind the cyclist in front. But it is a principle that can be used on open roads when appropriate.

Jonny Clay (left) with bronze medal won at Sydney Games
Jonny Clay (left) with his bronze medal won at Sydney Games

"The bigger the group you're riding in, the bigger benefit you will derive, even more than 30% in a large group," says Mr Clay. "But in terms of recreational cyclists, we don't want people falling off because they are riding too close.

"People must pay attention to traffic and road junctions, but you do see some commuters riding into work who may be more experienced riding together and riding behind one another."

PEDAL EFFICIENTLY

Notice how smoothly the Olympians pedal with a full motion throughout the revolution, which means their bodies don't rock, says Mr Clay. If the pedals were a clockface, then many cyclists make the mistake of pushing down only from 1 o'clock to 4 o'clock, which is inefficient.

Pedal with arrows showing direction of power
Pedalling right through the circle improves efficiency

"What cyclists need to think about is trying to create power through the full cycle if possible, not just pushing down. Most bikes now come with a pedal clip and a toe-strap and can produce a more even spread of power.

"The foot clicks in like on a ski and the ball of the foot should be on the central axis of the pedal."

USE GEARS SENSIBLY

Gears on bike
Bigger is not better, for gears
Track cyclists in Beijing have no gears or brakes. Their mechanics can change their gears in between heats. But the bikes in the road races have between 18 and 20 gears.

Ordinary cyclists often make the mistake of using the big gears but that's not efficient as the legs push more slowly, says Mr Clay.

"There's an optimum gear to use depending on your speed and conditions - a headwind or tailwind, up and downhill. Feel is very important, and practice."

STAND UP WHEN YOU NEED TO

Cyclist off saddle
Stand up to increase power
As Victoria Pendleton mounted the attack that won her a gold medal in the sprint, viewers saw her lift herself off the saddle to apply more power to her pedalling. It's a tactic that all cyclists can use, but they should use it sparingly, maybe when accelerating away from traffic lights or going uphill.

Jim Riach, education manager at Cycling Scotland, says: "Standing up means you can change your position. It's more effort but when you're starting to feel uncomfortable you can stand up, usually when riding uphill. Some people prefer to sit down and pedal and they could be more effective doing that."

LOOK BEHIND YOU

Just like the track sprinters who watch every move of the rider behind, so cyclists on UK roads should look behind them regularly, says Paul Robertshaw, a cycle trainer at Birmingham City Council and a triathlon coach.

Track sprinter and ordinary cyclists looking behind
Looking behind is crucial for safety (and tactics in a race)

"The track cyclists and sprinters look behind while in front, to look for any move and to make sure they don't miss anything. Even at that level, the golden rule of cycling of looking behind them is a great skill to acquire."

Cyclists on the road should glance over their shoulder before undertaking any manoeuvre, whether passing a parked car or a junction, and before committing to a turn.

Experienced riders tend to look at the eyes of drivers and check they have been seen.

PLAN AHEAD

There is a support team of 70 behind the 14 Olympic competitors. Besides the coaches, there are psychiatrists, scientists, masseurs, engineers, designers and nutritionists.

It's very easy for 10 or 15 minutes to come up with a route that's more fun
Paul Robertshaw

It's a level of planning that makes your head hurt, but even recreational cyclists can benefit from thinking ahead, says Mr Robertshaw.

"If you're going off on a bike ride at the weekend, spend a bit of time planning where you're going. Birmingham, like many councils, produces a map of the city with all the bike paths, cycle-friendly roads, all the parks that have cycle paths.

"It's very easy for 10 or 15 minutes to come up with a route that's more fun or way into work that avoids the dual carriageways."

Writing down personal goals such as personal fitness or finding enjoyable routes will also help, says Mr Riach.

DRESS APPROPRIATELY

The Olympians wear a combination of Lycra and Gore-tex, which is much thinner than normal Lycra and is equipped with special padding, says Elaine Andersen of Hike, Bike and Ride. Although their gear is specially made, forms of it do reach the High Street.

Cycling gear - helmet, luminous jacket, gloves
Helmet, got. Bright jacket, got. But rain can make work trousers very wet

"People behind the likes of Rebecca Romero develop the technology and then brands like Endura and Polaris buy a licence to use it to produce a product. And as the technology moves on, the price does come down."

In the autumn, the big thing will be bamboo base layers, with a two-piece retailing at about 25, says Ms Andersen.

Helmets reduce the risk of head injuries, but while the "aerohelmets" in Beijing were specially made, most in the shops are very similar on the inside, says Ms Andersen - what costs more is the design and the branding.

Not everyone wants to wear all the gear, so what might they be missing out on?

Cycle to work in a pair of jeans and you will be wet all day
Elaine Andersen

It's about comfort as much as performance, she says.

"There's nothing worse than doing a five-mile cycle ride in a pair of jeans, especially when it's hot or raining. The advantage to wearing proper gear is that you can cycle in any weather. And it dries very quickly, but cycle to work in a pair of jeans and you will be wet all day."


Below is a selection of your comments.

Old myth about toe clips. Pulling up on pedals uses energy so yes you will go faster but you'll get exhausted quicker. Only useful if racing and want a dash sprint so Tour De France yes, high street no.
Andy, Wigan

Trying to slipstream somebody on the road is just plain dangerous. You can't see round their backside so you can't avoid things in the road and they can't brake to avoid hazards without you hitting them. They can't see behind them and you'd better hope they don't fluff a gear change going up hill or you'll hit them again.
David Richerby, Leeds, UK

You also need a bike the right size. Sitting on the saddle, you should just be able to touch the ground with your toes. If you can put your foot flat on the ground the frame is too small or the saddle too low and you will probably ride "circus clown style" with your instep on the pedal and your knee always bent. That stops you fully using your leg muscles and you can't use your ankle to pedal right through the circle.
P Shaw, St Neots, Cambs

Standing up; the one fact which I remember from cycle proficiency training is that you should never, ever, stand up. The trainer even went as far as to say that standing up to cycle off after the end of the test would result in an instant fail. I can't comment on its effect on cycling efficiency, but from a cycling proficiency standpoint, it's apparently a big no-no.
Thomas, Cardiff

You'll never get me wearing Lycra. Ever! I just keep a pair of spare trousers in the office, just in case.
Martje Ross, lq

I cycle a 30 mile round trip to work and back every day, have tried a number of different bikes, bags and clothing. Probably the best part I've bought is a full road bike wing mirror, fantastic for maintaining a comfortable position and keeping an eye on the mad road rage idiots that drive our roads like it's their own private race track. A high-vis jacket and pannier bags help to keep you visible and maintain a stable riding position around roundabouts and junctions. I always ride about 2ft from the kerb too - prevents silly drivers trying to overtake you at dangerous bends and on urban roads, get a few honks of the horn in my direction but everyone gets to work and back safely as a result.
Paul, Birmingham

Regarding Andy from Wigan's comment on toe clips: (1) different muscle groups are used for pulling up compared to pushing down, so you don't fatigue twice as fast, (2) if the cyclist is generating power throughout the pedal revolution, then less power is needed at any point in the cycle, so you either go faster for the same force or go at the same speed for less force, ergo, it is more efficient than normal pedals. Finally, these days, clipless pedals with recessed cleats on the shoes are not expensive, suitable for the high street and dispense with the need for toe clips and straps.
Andy, Bristol

My husband insists on trying to 'slipstream' when we're on a family bike ride. It's a disaster every time. Mind you, he does put me in front when I have the child seat (and child) on the back! Don't try this at home...
Liz E, Leeds

I cannot see the connection. It's like looking for what formula 1 can do to assist the regular motorist. Cycling as a commuter activity would fare much better if we stopped trying to connect it to sport and sporty types. In the Netherlands cycling is a normal activity for normal people and lots more of them get on their bikes.
David, Edinburgh

Excellent points and tips; I've been cycling to and from work everyday since about March and its done wonders for my fitness, but it does always feel a bit like an up hill struggle. I take joy in the fact that I'm not paying for petrol, the only fuel I need is a good meal!
Jonathan Morrison, Redcar

Some other good tips for more efficient cycling: Ensure there is the correct air pressure in both tyres - too low pressure and the extra effort you need to put in is very noticeable. Oil your chain with chain oil and use WD40 or a similar lubricant to keep key moving parts working more efficiently. Happy cycling.
Richard Gent, UK


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