The Battleground

Understanding terrain and how it helps or hinders you will make you a better rider.
Understanding terrain and how it helps or hinders you will make you a better, stronger, and more efficient rider.

Sun Tzu breaks down battlegrounds into nine different varieties, and how each affects the ensuing battle. Likewise, cycling has various battlegrounds, each with their own advantages and difficulties that should be considered. Below I’ve broken down some of the cycling battlegrounds, what to expect, and how to deal with them.

Flat Ground

Flat ground is deceptive. Sometimes it is not flat at all, but has a small incline which can sap your strength without knowing it. Unlike other terrain, there is no relief from pedaling. You coast, you slow; just like a headwind.

Use caution on long flats, as it’s very easy to go full-out and burn yourself up. Retain a steady tempo, slightly below your max cruising speed, so that you can maintain your pace longer without burning out.

Rolling Ground

This terrain rises and falls constantly, with very few flats, and to varying degrees. You can gain more vertical feet by riding rollers than riding a good climb, and be just as beat down by the end.

Maintaining momentum is the key. If you’re on a downhill and ground rises immediately afterwards, use your power on the downhill and the base of the uphill. On the uphill, retain your cadence only so long as you’re not wearing yourself down. Push over the tops of the hills to add velocity to the beginning of the next decent. Don’t stop pedaling when you crest. Use this time to spin out your legs and recover, and to retain your momentum for the next roll.

Climbing Ground

In a pace-line, use flat ground to your advantage to build up speed and save time. Solo, watch for false flats and over-burn (too high a pace).
Flat Ground: In a pace-line, use flat ground to your advantage to build up speed and save time. Solo, watch for false flats and over-burn (too high a pace).

The most obvious terrain, and often the most dreaded. Climbing ground is like flat ground in that it is unrelenting, but requires far more power to contend with.

If you don’t know the climb, be conservative. Better to end up with power left over than to burn-out half way up.

Watch your shifting. As your cadence slows, you’ll want to down-shift. If you down-shift too far, you’ll bleed momentum because your legs will be too tired to retain a high enough cadence to conserve it. As you down-shift, increase your cadence per each shift to retain momentum.

Breath and pedal evenly, and watch for undulations in the ground that can sap more strength. Higher cadence is better to reduce force per stroke on the knees and muscles. And beware the road before a climb. Like false flats, it can take away your strength before you hit the hard parts.

Falling Ground

Almost all cyclists enjoy descents to some degree. But they can be just as taxing if not handled correctly. They require firm yet relaxed control of the bike. If crouched, your legs and arms can get tired from maintaining such small positioning.

Use your power at the beginning of descents, where you’ll accelerate the fastest. The faster you go, the more you power is required to overcome wind resistance (power requirements increase exponentially as speed increases). Lower cadence (higher gears) will provide more stability while accelerating. If you’re not pedaling, don’t forget to up-shift and turn the pedals over, for when you do need to pedal.

Only compress yourself so far as to gain the most aerodynamic advantage while still remaining comfortable and not tiring other muscle groups. If you make yourself very small but tire out your legs, those few seconds gained won’t help once you’ve cleared the descent.

Watch for decelerations entering turns, and accelerate after exiting to catch the pace line.
Twisted Ground: Watch for decelerations entering turns, and accelerate after exiting to catch the pace line.

Twisted Ground

This is terrain that changes direction, often rapidly. Turns require you to decelerate, wasting the power you’ve imparted to gain your current speed/momentum. You then have to accelerate after the turn, using yet more power. They also hide upcoming terrain, making it harder to plan ahead.

Watch your line and don’t hammer the brakes. Don’t over-lean, and keep your weight planted on the outside leg. Don’t watch your wheel or direction of travel – let your body handle that. Focus on what’s ahead and adjust your turn accordingly.

Course Ground

When the ground is rough, it can sap your strength, and worse, cause a crash.

Slow down to conserve energy. Watch for the smoothest path Рsome parts of rough terrain are always smoother, more worn or have less potholes. If facing loose, course ground (like dirt or gravel) increase your cadence to reduce the torque on the rear wheel. This will reduce slippage. Avoid leaning into turns, and take the most linear path possible.

Smooth Ground

When the ground is smooth, it can be treacherous. If it’s wet, it’ll become slick as ice. If it’s iced over, you might not see it (black ice). If it’s dusty, a little bit of water is like a coating of oil.

Enjoy smooth ground (as it’s rare), and make good use of it to increase speed, but don’t become complacent, especially in bad weather.

Crowded Ground

Know the riders your are surrounded by. Understand their dynamics, and how they flow.
Crowded Ground: Know the riders your are surrounded by. Understand their dynamics, and how they flow.

Probably the most unpredictable of environments, riding in groups of people you don’t know can be dangerous. An example would be a mass-start event, where everyone is excited and will be less restrained / predictable from the start.

Keep your eyes open, and don’t be tempted to draft anyone until you’ve watched them for a while. Watch for escape routes – ways of safely clearing yourself from a crowd. If you can’t find the path, just slow down, and they’ll flow around you.

Open (Rural) Ground

No crowds, no cars, no buildings. Riding solo in rural areas is very liberating. But long stretches of open road affects your perception of the distances you have to travel. You’re also exposed to the wind for longer periods of time, and the more rural the roads, the less likely it is there’ll be help or rest points.

Plan ahead. Use Google Maps to check for gas stations or convenience stores along your route, especially on hot days. If solo, bring enough supplies to replace or patch 2-3 flats (approx. 1 for every 25 miles). Like smooth ground, don’t become complacent. Cars may come out of nowhere, and they might be driving dangerously because they’re in rural territory.

Winds can wear you down, and running out of water or supplies can lead to disaster.
Open Ground: Winds can wear you down, and running out of water or supplies can lead to disaster.