Speed, Leg Speed, and "Spinning Out"

Cyclists sometimes refer to “spinning out” in a sprint or down a hill, meaning they feel they reached the maximum speed they could in the gears they have. The implication is that with a bigger gear they could have gone faster in the same scenario. However, fitness and skill development (or lack thereof) are the limiting factors long before gear selection.

Leg speed is a skill that juniors are forced to develop due to junior gears (Huugh! Sorry, I just threw up in my mouth a little bit. That happens when I think about junior gears.) Track riders also develop this skill due to riding a fixed gear. And it’s a skill that all riders should work to develop through high cadence workouts. Accelerating out of turns, jumping, attacking, and sprinting will all improve if a rider is simply comfortable using higher leg speed (100–150).

At the end of the day, your top speed is limited by power—800 watts in a 53 x 12 is the same speed as 800 watts in a 53 x 14. But developing leg speed so your muscles will perform well at high RPMs can help you put all of your available force into the pedals, ultimately producing more power.

Power aside, let’s just look at the myth of spinning out. Not many riders are hitting 40 mph in a sprint. Never the less, it’s possible to reach that speed in nearly any set of gears whether you throw on a monster 55 chainring or you’re limited to junior gears (roughly a 48x13). As you can see in the chart below (click to enlarge/zoom), the absurdly large 55 x 11 requires a cadence of just over 100 to do 40 mph. Juniors can keep pace with a cadence of about 138.

On the track, pursuit riders use a cadence of about 120, kilo riders are around 140, and track sprinters are over 150. This isn’t the cadence you want to hold for an hour, but for accelerating out of corners, sprinting, or descents of a few minutes, the stock 53 x 12 on most bikes is more than enough. If you can’t hold 140 RPMs for the duration of a sprint, or 120 for at least 10 minutes, it’s time to add some high cadence drills to your workouts so you’re capable of it and become more comfortable maintaining this tempo.

So next time you hear a rider say he’d “spun out,” what he really just said is, “I can’t go that fast,” or “I’m lacking leg speed.” The chart doesn’t lie, and any rider should be able to put out 140 RPMs for a 10-15 second effort. Few riders have the power to turn the pedals at 140 RPMs in their biggest gear, but if you did you’d hit nearly 48 mph on a 53 x 12 and just over 40 on junior gears. Those are speeds that can win a lot of races.

The Feed Zone - Tips for Hand Ups

So that long road race is coming up, and you’re starting to think that getting a few bottles during the race would be a big help for staying hydrated. The feed zone is a tricky place, both for riders and the people feeding them, because most people—on and off the bike—don’t do it much.

A few things to think about before you plan to get a hand up during a race:
  • If you’ve never done it before, race time is not the right time to learn.
  • If putting 1–3 bottles in your jersey will be enough for the race, that’s the best way to go. If that won’t suffice, then make time to practice before race day.
  • It’s great that Billy’s girlfriend volunteered to help at the race, but if she doesn’t dress like Mother Theresa, she shouldn’t be asked to do her great works either. Feeding a team during your first race is totally unrealistic! And if you’re a friend of Billy’s, you won’t do that to his girlfriend. Plus, you’ll have a better chance of getting your bottle.

At this point, if you’ve decided that you need to get a feed at the race, or simply that it’s about time you started learning how to do this, read on. If the person giving you bottles knows what to do, that will be a big help. Next, a lot of your success will depend on everyone around you staying sane and whether or not you have good hands. If you took up cycling because you were the kid who couldn’t catch a ball if offered a million dollars, this hand up thing is not looking good for you. But these basics will help both you—the rider—and your assistant if you’re new to this. In the cycling tradition—and lacking a better name—I call the person handing up bottles the “soigneur.”

Before the race, plan the following:
  • What bottles, drinks (water, energy drink, etc.), and food should be put in a cooler or other container for quick and easy transport and access
  • Where the soigneur will stand (right/left side of road, and beginning/middle/end of feed zone), and where on the course the feed zone is located
  • What the soigneur will be wearing (clothing color, hat, etc.) so they can easily be spotted
  • Which lap(s) you plan to get a feed
  • What items you will get (energy drink vs. water) on which laps

Soigneur skills for handing up bottles:
  • Get close to the riders—usually this will be uncomfortably close for people new to feeding—but obviously don’t get into the road, which is dangerous for you and the riders
  • Hold the bottle correctly!!! Refer to image shown here.
  • Hold your arm straight out—this will be the right height for the rider and you won’t have to get quite so close
  • Let the rider absorb the impact of grabbing the bottle—don’t try to run along or move the bottle in the rider’s direction to lessen the impact. It’s a bike racer you’re working with, not an All-Pro Wide Receiver, and there are usually lots of other people in the feed zone.
  • Pick up dropped bottles after completing the feed
  • New soigneurs should only try to feed one rider, two max. With more experience for rider and soigneur it’s possible to feed more riders but still tricky.

Rider skills and tips for getting a feed
  • Toss off extra bottles after the feed zone—this way if you have a half-empty bottle you can keep it in case you miss your feed
  • Aim to grab the bottle at the neck with your thumb and forefinger, and the rest of your hand wrapping around the length of the bottle
  • Anticipate the difference in speed of the stationary bottle and let your arm absorb some of the speed difference—don’t try to grab the bottle with an iron hand and arm
  • Let dropped bottles go—don’t look back after them as you’re only likely to cause a crash

General stuff to know
  • Feeding is a learned skill, so practice it!
  • Plan feeds earlier than needed in a circuit race so you can always have full bottles with you, even if you miss a feed one lap.
  • Only hand up 1 bottle at time. If you really need to hand up more, then you need to use a musette bag (photo of musette bag) which uses a little different technique and practice
  • Many relationships have been negatively affected by the failure to connect on a feed, so talk and practice ahead of time and leave any errors out on the course (don’t bring them home afterward)
  • Writing your name (and team name) on bottles helps you get them back, but expect (and plan accordingly) to lose some.

Now practice
  1. Find a quiet street/road with an uphill—hopefully the races where you need to feed will also have a hill at the feed zone.
  2. Practice with the soigneur on the right side of the road. This is the side you will feed in most races, plus most riders are right-handed which will make this easier (sorry lefties).
  3. Have empty and water-filled bottles available (don’t use energy drink for practice—it’s sticky, and bottles sometimes squirt or pop-a-top during a feed); start with an empty bottle then move to water-filled bottles
  4. Soigneur stands on the white line (or on the curb) on the side of the road
  5. If necessary, before reaching the feed zone the rider moves any empty or near empty bottles to make room for new bottle
  6. Rider approaches following a straight line near the white line
  7. Rider maintains line through the feed zone—do not swerve in toward the soigneur to get the feed as this creates more chaos for riders and feeders alike; the soigneur should adjust their road-side position to be at the appropriate distance
  8. Soigneur holds bottle straight out at arm’s length grasping the bottle from the top (bottle dangling down)
  9. Rider puts hand out in bottle grabbing position (about 18“ in front of the shoulder at shoulder height with hand open) signaling they will take the bottle and helping the rider and soigneur home in for the feed
  10. Rider holds line and keeps eyes on bottle as taking feed to properly catch bottle. I recommend wrapping the bottle into your chest to hold it securely (sort of like it was a football) and making sure you still have a safe line through the feed zone.
  11. Rider then places bottle in cage or jersey
  12. Rider tosses off any empty or nearly empty bottles
  13. Repeat a half-dozen times or more increasing the speed as you get more comfortable

During a race
  • Stay to the left if you are not feeding—this will make life better and safer for everyone
  • Make sure to follow all of the pre-event planning noted above, plus remember and use the same techniques you did in practice
  • Expect the feed zone to be a bit chaotic during a race, but focus on getting into position (or out of the way) before entering the feed zone, and holding your line through the entire feed zone.
  • Rider and soigneur should communicate with each other each lap through the feed zone—confirm the schedule (as it was planned) or make changes as necessary

Example and future aspirations

In this video, riders are going through a feed zone picking up musette bags and grabbing bottles.  They make it look very easy, and you’ll probably have a hard time picking up the feed zone action until you’ve watched through the video a few times. Look for riders slinging musette bags over their heads they have just grabbed, and a few bottles being handed out. Everyone continues to ride a steady pace and a smooth line. Watch the upper left corner as the soigneur with the white and red shirt hands out three bottles from 0:23–0:28 in the video.