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Triathlon Cycling Distance – What It Is And How To Do It

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The cycling leg is the longest section of a triathlon, sandwiched between the swim and run, but how far is the bike ride, and how best to approach it?

The Olympic distance triathlon has a 40km cycle leg. This is the standard distance within a triathlon, although there are variations. The correct equipment, sensible training, course preparation, and a race plan are all key components in approaching the cycle leg of a triathlon.

Gauging your cycle leg to ensure you have enough energy for the run is a learning curve whether you are a novice rider or an experienced cyclist.

In this article, I shall look at:

  • What triathlon cycing is
  • The racing distance involved
  • What equipment you need
  • And how to ready yourself for the cycle
  • How to pace yourself during the bike leg
  • The different types of long-range cycling races that exist
Triathlon cyclists in a race

Triathlon Cycling – An Overview

The most common triathlon events are held over the Olympic distance, which sees the cycling leg of the race cover 40km. Cycling is the second of the three disciplines following a 1.5km swim before heading out onto a 10km run.

While the Olympic distance tends to be the classic triathlon distance, a race can be divided into legs of different distances.

Other recognized triathlon distances include super sprint, sprint, half ironman, and ironman. The cycling legs for these distance events are (source):

  • Super sprint – 10km
  • Sprint – 20km
  • Half Ironman – 90km
  • Ironman 180km
Road bikes for triathlon with shoes and water bottles attached
The cycling leg of the various triathlon competitions range between 10km to 180km

What Equipment Do I Need?

It is easy to become a bit overwhelmed by all the potential gear on the market and the associated costs when kitting yourself out for a triathlon.

Unlike single discipline sports, with triathlon, you need to have the right gear to complete three separate sports.

However, an entry-level road bike is perfectly fine for the cycling leg, particularly if you are new to the sport.

Purpose-built triathlon bikes can cost anywhere upward of $4000, around double the price of a decent entry-level road bike, and are best left for now to more experienced competitors.

Road bikes are good for novice triathletes or those who have never cycled competitively because they allow you to get used to the feel of a bike over a twisting, undulating course.

Triathlon cycling requires technique when handling the bike with other competitors close to hand, which can be difficult to learn on a triathlon bike designed primarily to make you as streamlined as possible for more power.

Where budget permits, a professional tuning of your road bike can be useful as it looks at elements such as saddle and handlebar position to improve your cycling efficiency and comfort on the bike.

This can help remove stress on the body and reduce the risk of injury. The following video outlines how a road bike can be adapted for triathlon:

The following gear is also essential for cycling in a triathlon:

  • a good helmet which is easy to clip on and off
  • sunglasses that not only keep the sun from your eyes, but also rain, insects and grit from the road
  • a water bottle, which is essential on the bike as this is the leg where you have most chance to re-hydrate and refuel
  • a flat kit bag, usually placed under the saddle, in case of the need for puncture repairs. Make sure you know how to use the kit, as punctures are inevitable if you cycle often enough.

The next couple of items are optional for beginners but can become essential kit once you are more experienced.

  • Cycling shoes and cleats, with clip-less pedals for easier transitions
  • Cycling gloves, particularly for the longer distance events.

You do not have to break the bank to kit yourself out for the cycling leg of a triathlon. Equipment can be improved or added to with progression and, just as importantly, as your budget allows.

Preparing for the Cycling Leg of a Triathlon

How much time you should spend training for the bike element of a triathlon is very dependent on the individual.

There are a number of factors to take into consideration, the primary ones being your ambitions for the race and the time you have available for training.

Another major factor is whether you are a beginner or are coming from a cycling background.

Cycling forms the longest element of triathlon and you can make up some decent time if the bike is one of your strengths.

However, if cycling is a weaker discipline then you will need to spend more of your allotted training time on the bike. In this instance, instead of one bike ride a week you may look to increase this to two or three rides a week.

Additionally, cycling to work instead of using the car or bus can help build in more miles and improve overall stamina.

Making your training rides at least an hour will help better prepare your body for the time spent in the saddle on race day.

Anybody switching to triathlon from racing on the road might continue to train as if they are preparing for a time trial, with bursts of effort followed by periods of steady recovery. These types of sessions can also be done using an indoor bike.

As you gain more experience you will begin to tweak your training to address any weaknesses in either of the disciplines.

A personal or club coach is always useful, as is tapping into the knowledge of any experienced triathletes, who are usually only too happy to offer advice. They can help you work out a training schedule based on the hours you have available every week.

Bare-footed cyclist running with road bike during triathlon
Well organized transitions between elements of triathlons will really help in optimizing your speed

Check Out the Course

Even if training goes completely to plan, poor preparation can hinder your cycle on the day.

Do not leave preparation to the last minute, instead always ensure you have all your gear ready and the bike in prime condition the night before a triathlon. This allows you time to relax on the day, go through your warm-up routine and give your bike one more look over to ensure there are no issues such as punctures.

In the age of the internet, it is now easy to familiarize yourself with a course prior to the event. You can note any hills and sharp bends, reducing any sudden surprises and helping you plan your ride.

Make sure you go through any race information too, familiarizing yourself with the transition zones and aid stations.

The Cycle Leg

The cycle leg of a triathlon can form over 50% of the whole race.

You will also have just completed a 1.5 km swim and a short run to reach the transition zone (source). Swimming offers different demands on the body and once out of a horizontal position in the water the blood is being redirected around the body.

This can all feel a little odd, particularly to the triathlon newbie, so it is important to remain calm and focus on your breathing.

Adrenalin can be pumping, but it is vital to resist the temptation to burst out of transition on the bike, even if other competitors around you do so.

You are ideally looking for a steady start on the bike in a low gear, which offers less resistance to the legs as they adjust from the swim.

From here you can gradually work through the gears as the ride develops.

Look to maintain a smooth pedal technique rather than exert energy by chopping and changing while you look for a sustainable rhythm.

You can break the 40km course into parts, something made easier if laps are involved. Having found a sustainable rhythm in the first part of the ride, you want to consolidate this in the mentally tough middle section of the course.

You can then push on or dig deep on the final stretch, depending on your energy stores.

A race plan with realistic target times for each discipline is highly beneficial in triathlon. Learning to listen to your body and judging the bike ride to leave enough energy for the 10km run without blowing up is a skill that comes with experience.

Even if you are a strong cyclist you should resist the urge to go for broke from the start of the cycle leg. By finding a steady rhythm that suits your personal cadence then you should soon be passing weaker cyclists.

If you are a strong swimmer but a weaker cyclist then you have to accept as part of your race plan that you will have others passing you on the bike.

Do not get disheartened and throw your own race away by over-reaching to try and match these competitors, who you may pass yourself during the run.

Do not forget to refuel, as the bike section provides the best opportunity to do so. This should be practiced on training cycle rides so you are not introducing a new technique and therefore a new element of risk during the event.

Try to consider your refueling when contemplating your overall race plan.

Sprint Triathlons

While called sprints, these are hardly 100-meter races. The bike leg will still normally be 20km.

So while just half the Olympic cycle distance, it is still one where you will need to find a rhythm to maintain through the ride.

Sprint triathlon cycle legs can be viewed more as bike time trials, but you still need to be able to complete a 5km run once off the bike.

An even pace is still key, but you will most likely be operating at a faster pace than across the longer Olympic distance.

Judging the speed you can maintain for 20km without blowing up for the run, while not finishing the run with energy still left in the tank, comes with experience. This is the type of information you can only garner from training and races.

Ironman Races

At the other end of the scale is the famed ironman distance, where the cycle leg suddenly becomes a more than daunting 180km.

The Ironman requires focus and discipline to ride at an even pace and the right intensity to be able to transition from the bike to a full marathon run. Needless to say, attention to training is paramount before even considering Ironman events.

Someone looking for an 11 to 12-hour Ironman will be looking for a heart rate of around 82% of their threshold bike rate.

Working with an experienced coach is therefore highly recommended, who can help guide you through all three disciplines. The last thing you want is heavy legs halfway through the bike ride with 90km still to go plus the marathon. The thought alone will likely end your race.

The 4th Discipline

Transition can be overlooked by beginners, but a poor transition can end any hopes of hitting your target times and ruin all the months of training.

Organization is vital.

Make sure your kit is laid out in an orderly fashion just as you will need it, checking bike tires are pumped up, the helmet straps are undone and shoes are loosened enough to easily slip your feet within.

You need to make a mental note of where your allocated space is within transition.

As you come to the bike from the swim you will already be unzipping your wet suit and you do not want to waste valuable time locating your bike. Similarly, after the bike when you are even more fatigued, having a clear mental image of the transition zone is highly beneficial and potentially energy saving.

Transition is therefore termed triathlons 4th discipline for good reason as it can have such an impact on your overall performance.

Therefore, setting up mock transition zones at home and practicing is a useful addition to your training schedule.

Final Thoughts

Whichever triathlon distance you race, gradually transitioning into a steady even pace that you can maintain for the whole cycle leg is key. Attacking the bike too hard from the start can ruin your whole race.

The Olympic distance is the most common triathlon event, with a bike course covering 40km. By researching the route, creating a sensible training schedule, and cycling at a pace you know you can maintain while bearing in mind the 10km run to come, you give yourself every chance of a successful bike leg.