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Power Transfer and Other Tips for Getting Faster on the Bike with No Extra Effort!

Tara Norton Blog on Power Output

I am a multisport coach at Absolute Endurance Training and Therapy in Toronto and have the privilege of training along side two of my favourite people who are pure roadies: Darko Ficko and Merrill Collins. I say “along side” because we often find ourselves literally riding next to each other on the Computrainers, sweating up a lake that forms under our bikes as we tackle various intervals. And when I do ride with them in person outdoors, I just desperately try to hang on Darko’s wheel. While I am riding at race pace or higher, it looks like Darko is just spinning in his 11-58 gear ratio! Not only are Darko and Merrill super fast and incredible athletes, but Darko is a wealth of knowledge, and I love our chats about training, recovery, racing, gear and nutrition. Darko doesn’t just accept information as fact: He does his research and understands exactly what is going on before reaching his own conclusions.

The other day Darko told me a story that was very interesting and also got me thinking about power transfer and how we can get faster, aside from the obvious normal routine of putting in the work and training hard.

Darko had a pair of cycling shoes that he was using and didn’t really think much about them. But one day, for some unknown reason, he switched to his old Shimano shoes and noticed that his power output was 20W more at a similar effort. So in the usual Darko-style of questioning the “why” and performing some great Darko-analysis, he did some tests to see if it was really the shoes that were providing more power output. He came to the conclusion that the stiffer shoe resulted in approximately a 5% better power output. Needless to say, Darko is back to riding with his Shimano shoes!

Of course when I told Shimano this story they were already well aware of the exceptional power transfer capability they designed into their shoes, but interestingly they also told me how this almost poses a problem for them at the retail level: Shimano has discovered that when choosing shoes in the shop people often assume the Shimano shoes will not be as comfortable as other options due to their stiff off-the-shelf feel. I find my Shimano shoes to be very comfortable, however, so I certainly recommend trying them on to confirm how they feel as opposed to deciding they might not be comfortable before getting them on your feet. Assuming you like them, you too can benefit from the amazing power transfer they afford. This sure is an easy way to get faster without increased effort!

This conversation with Darko got me thinking about other ways to get faster on the bike without any additional effort. In the past, I have written about how my Shimano wheels have the best power delivery design, and I recently blogged about how my amazing Di2 shifters make me faster, but here are some more thoughts I have on little ways to improve speed without having to work harder:

Aero Helmet. Racing with an aero helmet is one way to be faster. The more aero we are, the faster we are. I have tried a number of helmets and feel that my Giro helmet is the best one out there. It fits my head snugly and I don’t find it to be too hot (and this is coming from the Sweat-Queen herself!). Some aero helmets have large gaps around the ears which reduce their aerodynamic effectiveness by creating air turbulence in these spaces, so to get the full benefit of an aero helmet, these gaps are something to avoid. Also, when racing with an aero helmet it is very important to keep your head up (i.e. look ahead, not down, to keep the helmet flat) because as soon as you look down, the back part of the aero helmet points straight up to the sky and acts like a sail in the wind, completely negating the aero benefit of the helmet. I have to make a conscious effort to keep looking straight forward when I ride. Unfortunately a recent race photo of me in Triathlon Magazine Canada shows me with the big sail effect as I obviously had a moment of lack of focus and looked down. I am sure it only happened once and that the photographer just happened to snap the photograph at that one weak moment J!! The proper use of an aero helmet can shave a few minutes off a 180 km ride.

Wear Sunglasses. I have heard that wearing sunglasses provides a more aerodynamic ride because uncovered eye sockets also cause turbulence that can actually slow you down. I guess this is why the Tour de France time trial helmets often have built-in visors.

Aero Fuelbox. I use a bento box-type pouch on my bike frame to carry my salt tablets and some nutrition when I race. I was thrilled when Fuel Belt designed the Aero Fuelbox carrier. It angles down from your stem on the top tube. I know this is a small item, but every little bit helps. The case itself has a hard form to it as opposed to being made from a thin fabric, so it holds its shape properly, and the zipper system (as opposed to Velcro flaps) makes it very easy to use. Less fiddling around while using it means you can get back into your aero position more quickly.

Wheel Skewers. If you position your wheel skewers so that they are pointing straight back towards the rear of the bike, you will prevent an air pocket or turbulence from forming inside the skewer, so I have been told… But don’t do this if you are riding in a pack – this is only for TT-style racing!

Replace a Worn Chain. Chains stretch with use over time, and a worn out chain loses power. Picture a worn chain like an elastic band. With every pedal stroke you will lose the power that goes into stretching the chain until there is enough tension to drive the cranks and propel you forward. Replacing a worn chain with a new taught one is simple to do and will maintain your efficiency on the bike.

Tire Choice. Tubular tires are my choice for racing. I say “my choice” because there are different opinions about whether clincher or tubular tires are best. There are many reasons why I choose tubular tires: I like that they are lighter, they are easy to change (provided you ensure you can rip them off the rim – so before each race, I double check that there is a marked spot where I know I can easily remove the tire should I flat – I did learn the hard way to double check this), the rolling resistance is less with more tire pressure (but not too much) and I know I can’t pinch flat.

Seat Choice. Also, invest in a comfortable seat because the reality is that a comfortable rider is a more effective rider. Preventing shifting around on the seat will not only translate into a more consistently aero position on the bike, but will also conserve energy that can instead be applied to your power output through your legs.

Nutrition. Last but not least, I want to mention the often-noted importance of nutrition. Without fuel, fire doesn’t burn. So getting in your nutrition during the race should be a top priority otherwise none of the above-mentioned tips will come into play. Most people out on the course have done the training, and most people who even contemplate doing Ironman are mentally tough, but if you don’t get in the calories on race-day your fitness and mental toughness will not translate into a strong race result. Exact nutrition requirements will vary from one athlete to the next, but we all need to get the calories in on an ongoing basis. I have a Polar watch that I set to beep at me every 20 minutes to remind me to take in my nutrition regularly.

I hope you found some of these ideas interesting and helpful. Thanks for reading!