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Learning from the pros

Craig Cunningham
13 Jun 2016

Back in April, we headed out with Lampre-Merida to learn first-hand how better technique in the saddle can improve your performance.

Elite level cyclists aren’t just faster on a bike, they’re better on a bike. And while most of us can only ever dream of matching their extraordinary power on two wheels, there’s nothing to stop us learning from or copying their technical know-how.

To put this to the test we dispatched our least capable cyclist off to Belgium ahead of the famous Paris-Roubaix race. Here he trained with WorldTour pros Team Lampre-Merida to see what technical wisdom he could glean – whether it be about climbing, sprinting or braking – from riding with the pros. Here’s what our man came back with…

Cornering

Rising Lampre-Merida star Federico Zurlo reckons that one thing to be particularly aware of is where you shift your weight to when you’re about to hit a bend. ‘I concentrate on putting my weight behind me, not in front,’ the 22-year-old Italian tells BikesEtc. ‘Because if I put it in front, I won’t have the best control of my bike. If your weight is behind you, you have much more control.’ 

When put to the test, Federico’s advice makes perfect sense. Doing as he suggests, distributes your weight more evenly across the whole bike, making it feel steadier and more solid as you change direction, thereby reducing the chance of a spill and giving you more confidence to take the corner at a greater speed. But what about braking as you take a bend? How hard do the pros squeeze the levers?   

‘When you’re approaching a corner, don’t brake too hard,’ says Slovenian Road Race Champ Luka Pibernik, another young star in the Lampre-Merida ranks. ‘If you brake too much, too soon you’ll likely come off and cause danger for other riders. Finding the right line is also important. Take the line on the opposite side as you approach the corner. Go overtly wide, so that when you take the corner and go through its apex, you can accelerate easily out of the bend. Obviously this means going out wide to the right if you’re turning left, or left if you’re turning right. Set up your line, then lift your inside knee up and lean in. The smoother you get this down, the easier accelerating again will be.’

Zurlo also reveals that cycling off-road can help improve handling on it. ‘I learned a lot from cyclocross,’ he tells Cyclist. ‘Because it’s harder to control the bike, I find that I can keep greater control through the corners on the road, even when I’m really tired.’ 

Braking

Stopping your bike correctly is just as important as getting it going. But how do you get a grip of your fear or calculate the right amount of squeeze to put on your levers without ending up face-planting? 

For Davide Cimolai, Lampre-Merida sprint supremo and former under-23 European Track Champ, when it comes to braking, what he learned on the boards gives him an advantage on the tarmac. ‘It’s not so much about braking,’ he reveals, ‘as being aware of others. In the velodrome, you don’t use the brake. Instead you have to control your speed [using your legs] and be incredibly aware of what other riders are doing.’ 

This advice becomes particularly pertinent when applied to disc brakes. Lampre-Merida was one of three teams trialling disc brakes at Paris-Roubaix, on its new Merida Scultura bike. Unfortunately, injuries suffered by Movistar rider Fran Ventoso at the race, which he claims were caused by a collision with a disc-braked bike, have led to a temporary suspension for disc brakes among the pros, but what does the team make of them? Zurlo, who demonstrated deft handling while riding with Cyclist, explains afterwards why disc brakes work so well in the harsh conditions of northern Europe in the spring. ‘With a normal bike in the wet, I brake more,’ he revealed to us, ‘and this can cause the  bike to slide. But with discs, there is no sliding. The braking is sharper.’ 

Hydraulic disc brake systems, like the ones used on Lampre-Merida’s Scultura, may appear effortless, but require real diligence to be used effectively. ‘It’s all about braking more softly, more considerately,’ Zurlo tells us. ‘It’s similar to ABS in a car.’ In other words, just as Cimolai advises, your brakes should be applied sparingly – even more so with discs! In fact, feathering with disc brakes isn’t so much a case of good or efficient riding technique, as a matter of absolute necessity. Brake too abruptly with discs and you’ll easily end up on the tarmac, or worse still, under a pile of other riders. 

Sprinting

A common mistake, according to Pibernik, is that many people select the wrong gear. ‘Choosing the right gear for your acceleration is key,’ he tells us. ‘You don’t want to waste energy spinning out or grinding.’ But gearing is just a small part of the picture. ‘Specific training is also needed,’ he adds, referring to the well-documented need for interval training, ‘but positioning is key. 

‘Staying aware of other riders and how the group moves,’ the Italian continues, ‘develops your cycling intelligence and that is only something that can really be developed by riding in a group.’ So if you’re the type of chap who does most of his riding in solitude, you may want to switch things up and bit and try riding with friends or with a local cycling club. With practice you’ll not only increase your awareness of other riders, as Cimolai suggests, but also your handling skills and, of course, your group-riding skills, learning how to properly hold a wheel for example and enjoy the aero benefits a group ride can offer. 

But what is the best position to adopt when digging in for a sprint? When thinking of those last hundred metres of a race, the image that springs to mind is always of some dynamic pro hunched deep over their drops, face grimacing from all the effort. ‘Having a low position and giving it full gas, that’s just it,’ Pibernik confirms, ‘but there’s more to it than that. There has to be compromise. If you are too low and your chest is squeezed, you cannot breathe properly and so you cannot sprint well.’ Getting it right then, is a matter of finding that balance between getting low enough to be aero but not so low that you inhibit your ability to get air into your lungs.

Cobbles 

For all the status we place on the precious pavé, very few of us live close enough to any cobbles to actually test ourselves on these demanding bits of road. Even in Paris-Roubaix, a race which celebrates their spiteful challenge, they only make up about 20% of the route. However, it would have been rude not to get the Lampre-Merida boys to tell us what they know about tackling the notorious cobble goblins. 

Despite being from sunny Italy, Zurlo is spectacularly enthusiastic about the harsh wilds of northern France, and Paris-Roubaix in particular. ‘In the junior category, when I raced here for my first time I was impressed because of the difference to any other race. It was from another world,’ he tells us with twinkling eyes, before revealing that perhaps more than any other race, it’s the so-called Hell of the North that he longs to win most. So how does he go about tackling those monstrous cobbles? ‘When riding the pavé, I sit higher, I let the bike take the shock. Being relaxed and not too tight means I don’t waste energy.’ Picking the right line is another piece of advice Zurio is quick to share. ‘I follow, follow, follow, and wait to try to find the perfect line,’ he reveals.

It’s simple understanding like this that sets the pros apart, as every tiny aspect of riding is considered. By studying them at close hand, though, whether on TV or at a race itself, the average weekend warrior can tighten up his technique and ride with greater confidence and efficiency – although, as we discovered, not necessarily greater speed!

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