Why smoother is better

(and we’re not talking about your legs for once!) In the never ending quest for more speed on the bike, I have concluded that there are 3 main (legal) ways to go faster:
  1. You can get fitter and stronger and ride with more power - takes time and can also be hard work! I do also recommend this one.
  2. You can improve your aerodynamics/decrease drag (bike fit, Aero Helmet, wheels, tires, skin suit, shaving your legs, ceramic speed upgrades, etc etc) - costly, and there are an infinite amount of upgrades you can buy!
  3. You can ride smoother (my personal favorite, less effort, more speed!) This is something that I have been personally focusing on for a while now, and am looking at more and more closely with our athletes, since I love the concept of truly free speed.
For those of you who are riding with power, there are 3 main metrics in Training Peaks that we are looking at when we are trying to assess the ‘smoothness’ of a steady state ride (where you are looking for a prescribed amount of power for a specific duration):
  • Normalised Power (NP) - which represents the actual physiological cost of your ride
  • Average Power (AP) - which is the actual average power of your ride, and is loosely where your average speed is derived from
There is a nice article from Training Peaks which explains the difference between NP and AP which can be found HERE
  • Variability Index (VI) - which gives us a measure of how ‘smoothly’ your power was delivered over any particular segment of a ride (1.00 being the gold standard, and the higher the number the less smooth you have ridden)
To a certain degree, the terrain you ride on will dictate how smoothly you are able to ride, but for those of us who are living and training in the UAE at Al Qudra and District One, there is really no reason to not ride really smoothly. For those of you who are relatively new to working with power, it is not a skill that will develop overnight, but with a little understanding, application and focus/concentration you will see progress. Keep in mind that for a steady state ride, the higher the VI, the bigger the gap between NP and AP, and what we are saying is that any gap between NP and AP for this type of ride would be considered an ‘inefficiency’, or simply, ‘wasted' watts. So why is it important? Lets first look at the training file (below) of somebody who is relatively new to the concept of working with power, and actively working on smoothing out their delivery (I have made this anonymous, to protect the innocent) flanners2 This was a Zone 2 ride from the weekend just gone, steady state, aiming for around 70% FTP. At first glance, we would look at this, note the NP and the intensity factor of 0.72 (which means he (or she) averaged 72%FTP), admire the aerobic de-coupling (1.20 pw:hr) so, mission accomplished. Right?! - well, yes, and no. And, don’t get me wrong, this IS a good ride, but, it can be better - with that little bit of skill, understanding and application I referred to earlier, we can either have the same speed for less effort, OR, more speed for the same effort, either of which would be considered desirable, and definitely look better on Strava and/or the resulting Instagram post. So, how? First of all, you can see that the power line (the pink one) looks quite erratic. Then, if we go back to the 3 main metrics that I referred to above, and we know that NP is the physiological cost of the ride, AP is the actual average power (and loosely where your speed comes from) and Vi is the measure of how smoothly you have ridden, (with 1.00 being pretty much perfect, 1.03 would be, in my opinion, a reasonable benchmark to aim at to keep your steady state rides under) - you can see the following data from this ride: a) NP - 206w b) AP - 184w c) VI - 1.12 So we can immediately see that the VI here is quite a way beyond what we should be aiming at (1.12 compared to our 1.03 ‘benchmark'), which has caused a really big gap between the NP and the AP, in this case 22w, which represents more than 10% of the total average power, simply ‘wasted'. I don’t know about you, but I don’t especially enjoy getting up at 4a.m on a weekend for a long ride, and I definitely don’t want to be ‘wasting' 22w over the course of 3 hours (or more) But HOW Flanners?! So, imagine you’re sat on a turbo trainer, with a constant resistance, and you maintain a constant cadence, that would result in a perfectly flat power file which is EXACTLY what we’re looking to re-create. Obviously there are some subtle changes in elevation and wind direction out on the tracks at Al Qudra and District One, so this is where we need to manipulate our given power at any point in time by adjusting our gearing and cadence constantly to make sure we are always close to the power level we want to be. When I have a specific power target in mind for a segment of work, I try to make sure that any time I look down at my 10 sec power displayed on my bike computer that I am never more than 10-15w higher or lower than my power target, regardless of whether I have a headwind, tailwind, crosswind, am going up over one of the short ‘climbs’ or heading back down the ‘descents’ on the other side. That typically means not riding especially fast going up the inclines, but maintaining power delivery thus riding quite fast coming down the descents when most people are recovering from their over-exertion going up. And, just to show that this actually works in practice, rather than just in theory, you can see below the training file from my own training ride just this morning. You will immediately see how much flatter the pink power line is, and note that there is only 1w difference between NP and AP, with a VI of 1.00 (you may also notice the large surge at the end, where some buffoon tried to attack me coming off the final ‘climb’ coming back down the stick, and needed to be shown what was what. We’re only human, after all!) flanners3 And finally, before anyone jumps on the bandwagon, yes, there would certainly be a strategic advantage in adjusting your power on race day to accommodate climbs/descents/headwind/tailwind, however, we’re talking about training and learning skills here, which ultimately make the application of variable power on race day much easier to execute. I hope this helps to at least partly explain a subject which I’m quite sure I’ll be having with many of you over the coming months, but as always, if you have any questions, do let me know For now, ride smooth, ride fast (that also means shaving your legs guys!) Flanners