Whether you are interested in racing or just beating your buddies to the top of the hill, many of us want to improve. And while bike brands are happy to sell you stuff with performance-enhancing promises, the reality is that the big gains come from you, not the stuff.
Don’t get me wrong: nice bikes and wheels and gear are indeed nice, and some can lead to those marginal gains you’ve heard so much about. But for maximal gains, it's all about you, the motor.
Here are three things that will help you improve that motor.
1. A saddle that you love
If you aren’t comfortable on your bike, you’re not going to be motivated to spend time there. Sure, a good overall fit is important, too, but assuming you have your bike geometry in the right ballpark, a great saddle is The Important Thing.
There is no single perfect saddle for everyone. Sit-bone width, riding style and personal preference determine what’s best for each individual. That said, a lot of us here at BikeRadar love the Specialized Power model, and I’ve come to appreciate the equally weird looking Selle SMP perches, too.
A good saddle should let you spend as much time as you like in your go-to positions — be that climbing or aero or Just Riding Along — without things going numb or getting sore.
A good saddle makes you faster in two ways. One, you can focus on being efficient with your power output or getting aero or just doing your interval workout, instead of thinking about investing in a chamois cream company and/or standing up every few minutes to relieve pressure. And two, back to my first point: if you're not comfortable on your bike in the first place, you're just not going to ride it as much. And that's not good training!
If you don’t love your current saddle, invest some time in finding one that you do.
2. A measurement tool
If you want to improve, you have to measure, otherwise you're just guessing at whether what you're doing is working or not.
A measurement tool can be as refined as a power meter or as simple as a stopwatch. I'd recommend a cycling computer with a heart rate strap and then spring for a power meter if you can afford it.
Trying to better your time up a local hill is a good, simple way to monitor improvement. But this method only gives you the end result, not any indication of how to best get there.
Monitoring heart rate is a good way to track fitness and train by zones.
I'm a big proponent of training with power. Besides quantifying your output and allowing you to tailor your training, a power meter lets you understand what works and what doesn't. For example, you can experiment with different cadences and see how that affects your power, your heart rate and your perceived level of effort.
3. A training plan
Okay, so now you've got a saddle you love and a tool to measure yourself with. Now what? Get a plan, Stan.
This can be as simple as following tips from a website or as detailed as a daily plan from TrainingPeaks or Today’s Plan, or even a coach. Any of these can point you in the right direction for your goal. What's that? You don't have a goal? Pick something — anything! A 100km ride. A gran fondo. A PR on a local climb. Anything.
I'm a big believer in putting something on the calendar. Besides the demonstrable physiological improvements that come from doing intervals at different intensities, having a plan gives you a great excuse to go do new stuff.
A few years back I trained for the Leadville 100. It was a cool event, but I think I enjoyed the training just as much, as I found myself in places I wouldn't otherwise have gone. And this makes the high-intensity training a lot more enjoyable than just grinding it out on the trainer.
These days I often follow plans because it gives me some basic direction that I don’t have to think about. Sure, I could cook up my own plans — I’ve been editing and writing training columns for about 15 years now — but I’d rather just buy a solid plan, like something from my friend Frank Overton, and go with that. Left to my own devices, I'd just end up doing a lot of aimless riding.
Of course, you don't have to train to enjoy riding a bike. And following a plan doesn't have to mean abandoning all fun rides with your friends. It can just give you some specific guidance for improving as a cyclist. Why not give one a go?