Usually around this time of year, I like to enter a mountain bike race and a criterium, partly to celebrate my birthday, partly to see exactly how much the offseason treated me.
This year started a little differently, but taught me a sharp lesson that I needed to remember. I decided to enter this year’s MTBNJ single track race with my cyclocross bike. Before you scoff, I should mention that I had good cause to think this was a sane idea. Firstly, several years ago, Kate completely handled the course on her ‘cross bike. Secondly, plenty of riders were reporting that I’d be able to manage the course with no problem.
This weekend, the course was rerouted into Allamuchy’s low-line: an area filled with rock gardens aplenty. After a soft pre-ride, I realized that while I wouldn’t destroy my bike, this race for me was going to be a game of track-standing finesse. The race itself went as much as expected, and I was pretty liberal in swinging off to the side of the course to let anyone lapping me pass right on by.
With the exception of three very stupid line choices during the course of the hour, I actually felt like I rode the course well considering I was on 32mm tires, and while I never had a perfect lap that strung everything together, I was able to ride every part that the track offered. But I knew I could have ridden it much faster, even with the same bike.
It wasn’t the tire pressure, and it wasn’t my lungs; my limiting factor was 100% my upper body.
Riding rough single track on a fully rigid, thin-tire bike meant I had to be out of the saddle over 90% of the race, and that my arms, shoulders, core, and back had to be extremely active. Not even a lap into the course, and I felt my lower back straining against me as I tried throwing my front wheel over rocks the size of barriers. My legs felt really good, but I knew they were taking on a load of my upper body weight that could have instead been stabilized by a strong core.
In other words, my training from Cyclocross Nationals to single track had been a little too one-dimensional, focusing exclusively on how many watts my legs and lungs could crank out, and not enough on the rest of the body.
Now I know that most of you are never going to find yourself in a single track race on a cyclocross bike, but in reality, these were just exaggerated symptoms for weaknesses found in all kinds of riding. How often on a long ride are we over-adjusting our positions to compensate for a weak lower back? How often are we putting loads of pressure on our hands and arms during a ride because our weak core muscles are forcing other muscles to take on more of the load?
While two weeks ago, Kate Cumming detailed out attacking aches and pains with training exercises focused on the glutes, I asked her if she had a few key exercises she also did to build strength for a big ride. She had a small list, but emphasized two workouts that could help all cyclists become more efficient:
1) Deadlift: This exercise should be approached with caution. While it is one of the most beneficial for cyclists, if completed incorrectly, it can strain the lower back. Deadlifts can be completed with a barbell, dumbbells or kettlebells; however, as the weight you lift increases, a barbell will be most beneficial. At heavy weights, dumbbells will be too cumbersome and/or not available in heavy enough weights for you to complete the exercise.
Begin with feet about hip width apart and barbell centered over feet. Flex the knees and sit the hips back, hinging forward at the waist to grab the bar with an alternating grip. Ensure your back stays flat and you are not arching or rounding. Exhale and push through your heels to begin lifting the bar. As the bar passes your knees, drive your hips forward towards the bar and engage your upper back (shoulder blade area) to come to an upright standing position. Inhale and return the bar to the ground in a controlled manner by reversing your movement.
If completing this exercise with dumbbells, begin standing holding the dumbbells in front of your quads. Inhale and slide the dumbbells down the front of your legs to approximately the middle of your shin by flexing the knees and sitting the hips back. Ensure that the back stays flat. Then exhale and push through your heels and drive your hips forward to return to an upright position.
2) Ab Rollout: Similarly to a deadlift, ease your way into the ab rollout. The ab rollout can also be completed with a variety of different equipment, from an ab wheel to sliders to a weighted Olympic barbell.
Begin kneeling with the barbell in front of you and your hands on the bar approximately shoulder width apart. Slowly roll the barbell forward, extending your body into a straight position. Only extend as far as you can without your hips sagging or lower back arching (think plank position). At your most extended point, pull from your abs to drive the barbell back towards your body.
To progress this exercise, complete from your feet rather than kneeling.
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