Words of Advice for Young Cyclists
This is a largely unsubstantiated and uneducated claim based on pure observation and experience, but to me, cycling seems to be one of the more multi-dimensional and complicated sports that one can find themselves delving into. When a young person joins a rugby or soccer team, they may kick a ball around at the local park or at school, watch a few games on TV, join a local age-based team and then play a match themselves on the weekends. A young person taking up cycling can do very much the same, except where the difference lies I believe, is in the fact that the rate at which you can progress and become increasingly involved in cycling, is far more self managed. In team sports, there are almost restrictions imposed based purely off the sports structure, from grass roots right through to professional. You can play for your 12th grade soccer team and perhaps trial for a regional representative team, but there is no real opportunity to explore those physical boundaries or push yourself beyond what is sensible for that age. The physical demands of the sport itself and the general competition characteristics obviously are a factor in determining this, but from playing for your high school top level team to potentially then being scouted for a provincial trade team, the chances seemingly will come when the time is developmentally right. From the perspective of an outsider, it appears that the development of young athletes in these sports is able to be blanket regulated to a certain extent whereas on the other hand, cycling seems to be far more ‘freestyle’. What is stopping a 13 year old from riding five hours every weekend or joining a bunch of strong adults for a ‘weekly worlds’ if their ability allows, rather than attending their school skills session or hanging out with friends at the park?
The sport of cycling gives far more freedom and possibility for young people and compared to more traditional sporting offerings, the wide scope that riding a bike offers is truly exciting and motivating. They can cycle to school and ride for their school team, join their local club and compete in their races, go out training everyday solo or with others, try new routes, complete infamous climbs, tick off distance challenges, get a coach, get faster, get stronger, set loftier goals, train harder and harder… the list goes on. Obviously I am not blind to the fact that there are external influences such as age restrictions, parents, fellow riders and coaches to temper enthusiasm and reign an over-zealous young rider in, yet it can be acknowledged that with an endless list of possibilities within the sport from a young age, that balance of enjoying the sport versus becoming too competitive too soon can become easily blurred.
I’ve compiled a number of key takeaways that I hope will be of some relevance and provide food for thought, whether it be for the parents reading this or an avid young cyclist themselves. At the end of the day, if you’re a junior rider who has a big dream of ‘making it’ in the sport, or who lusts over the life of professional cyclist, what you are truly aiming for is several years away, so the primary goal is to pace yourself so that you’re still enjoying training and racing in ten years time when it really matters. Below are a handful of pointers that I would consider to be of utmost importance when establishing a sustainable and ultimately fruitful relationship with the sport. If all is done well and aspects like these are acknowledged, you’ll be well on the road to ultimately growing as an athlete and steadily reaching that ‘peak’ at a rate that is appropriate for you.
This is an area that can be taken too seriously too soon, but certainly one of the crucial aspects to becoming a great athlete is to get a firm grasp on healthy habits both physically and mentally. It’s not about implementing a strict dietary approach or spending hours a week on strength and conditioning, but rather beginning to work on fitting in those little pieces that make up the wider puzzle of being a successful, well-rounded and healthy cyclist. Starting to develop small beneficial practices early and abiding by a wholesome yet balanced routine can lay down a great foundation for future years when the intensity of the sport and the demands on your body begin to increase.
As you progress through the ranks, the seriousness of your approach should gradually increase and naturally an older age along with greater maturity will provide an enhanced ability to cope with heightened stress. In saying this, it’s very difficult to ride a bike for 25 hours per week with high-level power output as a professional rider, subsequently placing huge amounts of load through the body and not becoming injured as a result… not unless you’re functioning optimally in regards to the likes of core, flexibility or muscular symmetry. One of my friends doesn’t stretch, doesn’t do any form of activation work and has never ever been injured, yet I’m at the complete other end of the spectrum where I have to work extremely hard at these aspects so that I don’t break down on a regular basis. Some people are simply born lucky with a superior biomechanical makeup that means they can jump on a bike and ride perfectly fine with extremely minimal ‘off bike’ body maintenance work. However genetics don’t favour all hopeful cyclists, so if you’re like me and perhaps have a wonky knee that crosses in too far or a terrible posture leading to the nickname of the ‘question mark’ (thanks Tanja Erath), then you’ll often have to learn the hard way that these slight weaknesses can be the cause of very pesky injuries. If you’re naturally prone to injury due to a particular discrepancy, recognising the potential issues that could work against you earlier rather than later will provide time to gradually rectify them to improve future performance, and lessen the likelihood of injuries further down the track. If you’re off to the physio far more often than you would like for various niggles, try to determine if there is an underlying congenital cause that could become more of a prevalent issue with increased riding.
Aside from being alert to potential ‘flag-raising’ physical quirks, invest in a foam roller to keep your muscles limber and firing in addition to working on that all-over body flexibility through a simple 15 minute daily stretching routine. One should never underestimate the power of foam rolling the quad when it comes to eliminating knee pain, works wonders let me tell you. These are small habits that can be carried throughout a cycling career to reduce injury risk and make you feel in tip-top shape on the bike. And if you do feel a niggle, listen to your body and don’t overdo it. Being receptive and attentive to warning signs is far better than the ‘ambulance at the bottom of the cliff’ style approach when you’re implementing all emergency measures to improve that achy muscle which is already just too overworked. I can guarantee that there will be a time (or ten) when you push it just that little too far despite realising deep down that you’re doing far more damage than good, but in the grand scheme of things, knowing when to rest is arguably more important than knowing when to fight through pain. I battled the worst knee pain of my life to finish the Tour of Yorkshire last year and then could barely place any pressure through that extremely swollen leg for a week afterwards; the convoy car would have been a far more sensible option but you live and learn.
Another important side to body maintenance is fuelling the tank – you can’t properly nourish, mend and build hard-working muscles on a poor diet. I am the first to admit that even when I was in U19 and had ambitions of being selected for Junior worlds, my diet was absolutely shocking. I think back on what I used to eat surrounding races and on an average day, and I shake my head in disbelief. I had zero culinary skills, despised vegetables and on the eve of the Oceania cycling championships in Australia, I remember having a store-bought sandwich for dinner because I knew no better. What I did realise was that my diet had to improve, however I wasn’t able to achieve this until I developed a genuine interest in nutrition and started educating myself from the very basics up. I cannot pinpoint what sparked my change of heart however cycling and food go hand and hand, and naturally it’s an area that many riders are drawn to as an outside passion. There is absolutely no need to abide by a strict diet that compromises a well-balanced lifestyle and restricts your ability to live a normal teenage existence, as the seriousness of your cycling needn’t be that refined at this stage. In saying this however, developing awareness of suitable nutrition and learning basic skills such as how to utilise whole-food ingredients or cook a nourishing meal for dinner will stand you in great stead for not only cycling, but life in general. Cooking and nutrition is also an excellent hobby to turn to as a distraction from cycling and for an alternative source of enjoyment and pleasure.
Don’t get bogged down in the details.
The very first riding device I received was a Garmin 510, and I can say that without a doubt it changed my cycling existence forever. Prior to receiving this magical Christmas present, I didn’t even understand that cycling computers with GPS rather than a wheel-mounted magnet speed sensor were a thing. I used to religiously track all my rides on the Strava phone app, and would have to charge my phone during the afternoon at school to ensure that there was enough battery for recording my after-school riding. I would have trained like this for nearly a year, becoming fascinated with collecting QOMs and drawing pretty shapes on the phone map. I had no screen in front of me but instead rode purely based on perceived effort and basically what I felt like doing (besides from the trusty manual Cat-eye computer that only worked 10% of the time, mostly for looks I guess).
I’m not suggesting that junior riders should not use a Garmin, because the way I trained was quite ridiculous in hindsight, but I didn’t know what I was missing out on and it really makes me realise just how much I was riding for the simple love of the sport. Having numbers like time, speed and distance are always nice and satisfying to see, and they really helped to further cultivate the enjoyment factor for me (once I eventually jumped on the Garmin bandwagon!). As a side note, a coach may seem over-the-top, but in some instances may be advantageous to keep a particularly eager junior rider tracking nicely and to prevent them from going too hard too soon. A reputable junior coach will know what is in the best interests for young riders, and will help to maintain a conservative yet effective training approach. Throw in cadence or heart rate once you’re getting a little more competitive and perhaps are beginning to work with a coach, but please just hold off on the watts. Learning to gauge your own feelings and train based on perceived effort is so often overlooked and such a valuable skill, and I believe it’s incredibly important in the making of a successful athlete. You learn to race with guts and how to get the best out of yourself, instead of being influenced by numbers flashing on a screen that might send alarm bells if you’re teetering 3w above a supposed threshold. I would say that one of my strengths when it comes to cycling is being able to pace myself and successfully control an effort, a skill that I put down to my triathlon days and the fact that I did so much high intensity riding to feel, whether it was a Strava QOM or a schools TT. The time will come when a power meter will become more of a necessity, but the way I see it is that one should not seek out a power meter – the need will become apparent when the time is right. Power is a wonderful tool and incredibly valuable for getting the most out of riding, but the precise nature of their job and the specifics they reveal are simply excessive for the training requirements of a junior. There will become a point further down the line when training data and performance statistics will form an important and integral part of training but until that time comes, enjoy the freedom and don’t be bound by numbers until you need to be. To be honest, the days when my power meter is flat are the days I secretly rejoice. Mentally, the numbers can sometimes get a bit too much so riding without is like a breath of fresh air.
Even when I did start using power in the second year of U19, they were largely wasted on me as I was not educated at all on anything ‘wattage’ and didn’t know how to interpret what this foreign, expensive device was telling me. Eventually, I discovered how to actually utilise power in my training and gradually became more knowledgeable in regards to reviewing my riding data. Even if you have a coach to crunch the numbers, it’s a far more worthwhile investment if you are able to comprehensively understand the data also. This leads into another point of mine.
There is a wealth of information, but use it wisely.
Knowledge is power, so become a student of the sport and school yourself up on anything and everything from race tactics to bike maintenance and rider experiences. If you hear talk of a cycling topic you do not understand or discover a skill that would be handy to have eg fixing a puncture or knowing how to effectively keep your bike in working order, make a mental note and aim to learn further.
Follow the Instagram and Twitter pages of admired professionals, check out cycling news websites to keep up to date with the latest happenings; also watch YouTube videos for the likes of informative tips and trick videos, dedicated cycling related channels, race replays and vlogs. These various sources will help to provide valuable insight and allow for greater education on many different cycling aspects. It’s important to be well-rounded as a bike rider by not only having physical capabilities, but also through having a genuine interest in the sport with a well-informed, savvy and inquisitive mindset. I noticed that I was far more fascinated and familiar with the global sport as a whole rather than the singular aspect of riding a bike unlike many of my school peers. I think this grain of curiosity alongside certain ‘fan-girl’ tendencies such as watching UCI race replays and dissecting results ultimately led me to developing a greater understanding and has aided my transition into higher level racing.
Online influences such as social media platforms, ride analysis sites and also cycling themed websites are becoming increasingly prevalent in the cycling realm; an aspect which is incredibly useful when it comes to learning and development, but also potentially detrimental if used unwisely. This is especially true with social media, as one can look in from the outside at an individual’s Instagram feed and forget that everyone who is an athlete is also a human being. They will still be fighting secret struggles, making mistakes and dealing with setbacks that will not be documented in the public eye. Their motivation and willpower will sometimes be zero, and their training will not be perfect everyday and just sometimes, they may even eat a whole block of chocolate despite the pretty salad pictures they post. Have cycling role models and use their online presence as inspiration, yet at the same time remember that it is largely a highlight reel for a day-to-day life that isn’t always happy bike riding, banana bread baking and glorious sunshine. There is no need for comparison or to try and copy their antics, but appreciate the online interaction for what it is and utilise their influence as fuel to strive towards your own short term goals.
The internet is really a pandora’s box when it comes to all things cycling, so remember to be discerning with what you read and take a lot of what you see with a grain of salt. You’re one Google search away from investigating a troublesome knee pain and determining you have early-onset arthritis, or coming to the conclusion that your dreams are doomed if you cannot break four figures in a maximal power test. I personally find it very important to decide who I trust and whose opinion I value the most on certain areas within cycling, given that there can be a plethora of different opinions and points of view on one singular topic. Surround yourself with respected people that you have a solid relationship with and can turn to when in need of advice. Your parents are a no brainer, but the likes of a coach, a physio and perhaps a trusted adult in the cycling community can be excellent for words of wisdom, guidance and encouragement. Being comfortable, familiar and personable with members of your support network is vital so that they know your history, your strengths as well as limitations and can offer the best possible advice catered to your needs and desires. Like stated above, I have a terrible track record when it comes to injury and in order to combat this, have established a truly valuable relationship with a fantastic cycling-specific physio in Dunedin who knows exactly how me and my troublesome body operate. I enjoy browsing the interwebs and reading various cycling-related columns to expand my knowledge and general awareness, yet at the same time for truly important personal matters, I have my key reference points that I can rely upon to provide dependable advice.
Always remember why you’re doing it.
From a young age, it is vital to develop a healthy mindset and attitude towards all things cycling. Having a sustainable, balanced and steady approach to progression can go a long way to achieving this; make cycling an important part of your life, but not your whole life. Enjoy the process of riding your bike while still having other escapes to turn to so that to put it simply, your body and mind do not become tired and overrun due to the strain of the sport. It’s refreshing to dismount the bike at the end of a ride feeling satisfied yet itching to go again the next day; this enthusiasm underpins the discipline that is increasingly called upon as you move forwards in cycling. It isn’t about forcing yourself to get out on the bike but rather remembering why you do want to, truly connecting with that reason, developing a sense of enthusiasm and then getting out on the bike. Continuing to sustainably nurture that enthusiasm over time and really identifying with the associated feelings will make the good periods sensational and the difficult periods easier to navigate. Ensure there are other interests and hobbies running simultaneously alongside as even though life is fantastic when riding going well, if it isn’t then having other sources of joy and motivation is incredibly important.
When you commit yourself to a sport, you are forced to embrace the rollercoaster of emotions and sensations that come with it, so being equipped with the right outlook to manage a variety of situations will serve you well. There are times when I consider cycling a true pleasure, whereas other instances it is definitely classified as a job. By working through the tougher days, the good ones feel even sweeter. Although you will not always feel good or have the most enjoyable time on the bike, reflecting upon why you’re doing it and what made you jump on in the first place will help to keep pushing those pedals around.
Find your local community.
If I look back on how I progressed and where I learnt the most, without a doubt the biggest influence on my cycling ability was the community and getting involved in local races and group rides. It’s all very well going out for solo rides and they certainly have their place, but you can learn so much through competing in local races with low pressure and the ability to try different tactics to discover what works and what doesn’t. I would say I learnt the most about strategic riding and technical aspects such as positioning and bike handling just through attending the infamous local “Wednesday Worlds” style bunch ride where most of the time I was dropped rather quickly into it. It was through getting smashed week after week that I was able to identify the critical mistakes and where I was going wrong, and could then go along the next week to try and rectify those errors. To this day, I still set myself little targets along the ride route to see how far I can hang on, and I know if I make it through a particular section with the bunch that I’m on a good day! By attending local cycling races and bunch rides you’re able to interact with other riders, many of whom are extremely knowledgeable and experienced when it comes to cycling, and it’s their guidance and advice that is priceless. In addition to the learning and knowledge that can be gained, it’s incredibly motivating to go riding with others who will push you out on the road and also just provide encouragement to get it done on those tough days. I’ve often had some of my most challenging rides with others who are physically superior so constantly have me pushing myself in duration, terrain and tempo. The cycling community at home is always really encouraging of me, and many of the riders have believed in me more than I have believed in myself. The interactiveness and welcoming nature of the first club event I attended in 2013 was a key factor in me concentrating on cycling entirely, and to this day I still go riding with guys who dropped me from C grade in that said race. Many of the masters riders may not like hills so much and didn’t exactly appreciate me as a little teenage girl when the gradient went up, but given that they make up for this climbing weakness on the descents, I have certainly been forced to improve my once-terrible downhilling ability over time. A final note on this point for the parents out there, if you don’t already ride then I suggest you should; it’s much easier to support a child’s cycling interest from your own saddle and allows you to relate to their endeavours on a deeper level.
If there is only one thing that you take away from this blog, let it be this – you will make progress in the sport of cycling so long as you stick with it and give yourself time. I would consider that all of the points I have raised above all ultimately can be traced back to preparing for the future and allowing for longevity in the sport; lay a foundation for when the time is right to ramp up the training and really get serious. I see cycling as a very long-term commitment, it’s an incredibly drawn out process to reach the top of the game and from personal experience, it gets even slower to improve the better you become. Success doesn’t come overnight and with cycling being so multi-faceted, it’s important to keep setting challenging but achievable short term goals as stepping stones to improve in various areas. Ride your bike and race for the love of it, test yourself with mini targets such as sticking in a tough bunch ride or riding up a steep climb, and simply focus on improving at a sustainable rate. You’ve got a lot of time ahead in this game so take it easy, keep it steady and let the opportunities progressively follow.
Thank you for reading, Ella Harris