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Why we work on racing skills all year round, by Coach John Cheetham

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It’s early March in Northern California and after a exceptionally dry February El Nino is roaring back for a two week stretch of downpours. I’m standing in a school parking lot pushing my bike sideways at a forty degree angle to test the adhesion limits of both my tires and the oily/ wet playground before I ask fifteen new bike racers to start working on counter steering drills. I make some adjustments to the day’s program in my head accounting for the weather and we go to work, transforming the stiff body language and mistrust into smiles, risk taking, and play. This is my sixth winter weekend of 2016 putting a skills clinic on and the most rewarding part of my varied work coaching cyclists of all sizes and abilities.

During the winter months many like to slide into long easy rides and the assumption that we’ll be ready for the higher mental focus and skill level needed for racing or even hard group rides simply by osmosis, when in fact now is the best time to work on skills, balance and neuromuscular improvements. Either by casual play with friends (road bikes on dirt, anyone?) or structured sessions, especially to recover/release stress from hard fitness oriented base training. Spending a couple sessions a week focusing on skills and “doing your homework” really pays off the first time you hit a corner shoulder to shoulder with another rider in the local winter criterium, or for that matter go to that first mid week CX race or track league.  When the intensity rises, you want to be thinking about the race, not your cornering or what’s happening in the pace line. Making these things instinctive, even for experienced athletes, has a huge payoff in energy savings and the ability to take advantage of a changing situation in a race.

“ Under pressure, you don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training. That’s why we train so hard.” Anonymous Navy SEAL

Cornering drills are a great place to start; it lets the coach quickly evaluate riders comfort on the bike. I teach a ton of technique like counter steering, proper angle into a turn, the behavior of a peloton in a turn, and much more.  It’s also along with group riding the specific skill set that typically stresses the new rider the most. We do it all the time on a bike, yet unless you came from motorsports many of us have never practiced or perfected turning safely and efficiently in a race situation. I personally do little drills all the time when casually riding solo (doing my skills homework) and enjoy counter steering a fully loaded commuter bike complete with panniers down a local canyon while musing about where to weight my body to compensate for the 40 lbs of laptop etc in the bags. …When you have the cornering down moving to group skills is a natural progression.

Group riding is a fantastic thing to work on in a clinic venue, this can be all the way from standing in a mock peloton with club mates talking about a basic pace line, to riding a six or eight person rotating echelon behind a scooter with a camera. The best part of being in a clinic setting is the ability to stop and give immediate feedback without shouting up a line of riders at 25 mph. Taking the time to break and discuss what the objective is or to give constructive feedback is worth its weight in gold.  Really challenge yourself and your group to ride a perfect rotation; it’s a decent goal for most amateur cyclists.

We usually move from group riding to sprints as the level of awareness, skill and balance on a bike rises. This is another category of work that can be a small part of a skills day or a whole days focus, especially if you are moving from sprint mechanics and basics into sprint and race finishing tactics.

Watch any beginning race and you’ll see some unbelievably varied sprint form as well as some very frightening habits, so start with the basic mechanics. We move from very basic control of your bike while stomping on the pedals to proper form to get the most speed out of your body in the finish of a race. EVERYBODY needs sprint work, not just sprinters or track racers! It’s a key skill to cross to a breakaway, attack, finish out of a climbing group, or start a pursuit or time trial. Why not be as efficient and fast as possible in whatever type of racing you do? Many people think of obstacle courses when they think of skills training, but the beauty of it is you can use any safe parking lot for most of the work and incorporate natural features like traffic islands, painted lines, etc. When we go to contact drills though I prefer to find hard rideable grass. Mentally it’s SO MUCH easier to commit to bumping another rider, or intentionally rubbing his wheel when the consequences aren’t so severe…

Contact with others while riding/racing can be frightening yet it is also one of the most fun empowering, and useable skills to work on. Find some nice grass and create pinch zones, race courses, tire bump areas, and the granddaddy of them all, the Circle Of Death, most people love just for the name alone! Use your imagination and the terrain, have fun and make it challenging.

If all that isn’t fun enough, do specific situational practice drills such as a bottle or musette handoff , hopping obstacles, barriers or steps if its a cx focused session, or anything else you can come up to have a blast while learning. I love playing some kind of game picking up tennis balls from the ground and making baskets. You can always tell who is doing their flexibility work and the fearless junior racers usually win! This is very similar to the contact drills in placing a focus on play that tricks an athlete into going far outside of his or her comfort zone on a bike.  Watch their body language from start to finish, see the hips relax, the shoulders and arms loosen, and the peripheral vision improve.

Every skills clinic I’ve coached, helped coach, supported, or attended has ended the same way. It’s been fun; the smiles are everywhere and ear to ear. It’s been challenging, I’ve done several with national champions that happily pushed themselves through limiters. Every attendee got free speed, sometimes subtly and sometimes in a huge “ah hah!” moment. Awareness of others and the rider’s own bodies rose dramatically. And the improvement in the group dynamic, especially for racing teams or organizations, is a huge opportunity to grow, trust, and work together. I’d urge you to take time to practice these skills and address your limiters. Make it a mini camp focusing on fun and riding at a higher level as opposed to fitness building. You might be very surprised at your mindset in the next race or group ride!

John Cheetham is a USA Cycling Level one coach and coaches both groups and individuals.
Check out his bio page here Coach John Cheetham