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Specificity and variety in cycling

Dawn Hunter compares and contrasts the skills associated with four different cycling disciplines.

Specificity is one of the cornerstones of successful training and racing. Any adaptation brought about by training will be specific to the type of training undertaken. However, many sports break themselves down into several different skills that can be learned and improved upon using other sports or disciplines within a sport. For many recreational athletes, this allows for more variety in their training, particularly in the off-season or when the conditions are inappropriate for standard training sessions. This article will look at four different cycling disciplines (road racing, time trialling, mountain biking, and track cycling) and the skills and benefits gained from each that are transferable to the other disciplines.

Road Racing

Road racing involves cycling with a group of cyclists, taking advantage of the ability to draft off the other competitors to save energy for potential breakaways and sprint finishes. This involves the ability to cycle closer to the other competitors and predict changes in speed and terrain.

Time Trialling

Time trialling is contested as an individual against the clock with the fastest time winning. Maintaining mental focus and consistent application of power to the pedals is vital for this cycling discipline. The ability to maintain an aerodynamic position for long periods increases the speeds that can be attained.

Mountain Biking

Mountain biking involves cycling off-road on what can be quite technical courses involving rapid changes in direction, steep ascents and descents, and obstacles such as tree roots, boulders, and logs.

Track Cycling

Track cycling uses bicycles with a fixed wheel, single gear, and no brakes. Speed changes are dictated by the pedalling speed (or cadence) of the cyclist. Track surfaces are either wood or concrete, and they can be indoor or outdoor.

Bike Handling

Bike handling is an essential skill for all four cycling disciplines, whether on open roads or off-road. Cycling in a group also requires particular skill and care to get the most benefit from drafting whilst still having a good position to launch an attack without colliding with the other cyclists in the pack. Across the disciplines, bike handling skills are varied and useful to learn.

In mountain biking, obstacles, such as tree roots or a sudden drop-off are likely to appear suddenly and require quick reaction and decision-making skills to pick the best and quickest route to take. The ability to handle the bike in these situations involves good core and upper body strength and careful positioning. These skills transfer very well to road races where bunch sprints can be particularly challenging, leading to crashes and accidents at all levels of ability. Riders frequently touch shoulder to shoulder in these sprints so, self-confidence in handling the bike is crucial to being competitive. Hesitation can lose the sprint, and poor handling can cause a crash.

Track pursuits also require good bike handling skills to allow the riders to sit on their teammates' wheel to benefit from the draft effect. Bunch sprints can also occur in track racing, and without brakes, the bikes are handled by pedalling speed. The Madison, where one rider throws their partner into the race, involves the ability to handle one's bike single-handed at speed whilst the other hand catches the partner and propels them into the race. Timing, confidence, core strength, and balance are crucial for an effective pass.

In time trialling bike handling skills are involved in changes in road surfaces such as potholes and grates. In cornering, particularly at roundabouts as time trials are frequently on out and back routes with a 180-degree turn at the roundabout at the far end. Traffic is sometimes to be contended with although as time trials tend to be early in the morning or on quieter roads, this is not always a big issue

Efficient pedalling

Efficient pedalling is a key aspect of all four cycling disciplines. Athletes need to transfer as much power as possible to the pedals whilst avoiding the potential dead spot just before the top of the stroke. A smooth circular pedalling motion involving the quads on the downstroke and the hamstrings on the upstroke is preferred. Due to the high cadences used in mountain biking, good pedalling action can be learned from this and transferred to road racing and time trialling. Track cycling also encourages a good pedalling action because of the fixed wheel, which allows for no dead spots.

Cadence is an important skill to learn and varies slightly across disciplines. Due to the fixed wheel and gear, there is a direct correlation between cadence and speed in track cycling. The faster the cyclist pedals, the quicker they will go.

With other disciplines, the gearing will affect the speed as much as the actual cadence. However, higher cadences are favoured. Lance Armstrong is known to have taken note of mountain biking and the higher cadences used in this discipline and applied it to his successful 7 wins in the Tour de France. One of his main competitors, Jan Ullrich, is renowned for using large gears and this has been seen to be one of the aspects of his downfall, as it does not allow for quick speed changes.

Track cycling differs from the other three disciplines covered here, in that the gear is static, and it operates on a fixed wheel, meaning there is no ability to free-wheel. Track bikes do not have brakes, so the bikes are handled entirely by pedalling. This means that the cyclist has to pedal constantly, which is a useful skill, particularly for a time trial, where a constant pedalling rate is liable to give a faster time. It is easy to free-wheel downhill in a time trial, yet where there are sufficient gears constant pedalling is more efficient.


High-intensity training can be done on turbo trainers or out on the road, but many recreational athletes find it more challenging and enjoyable to get this type of training through racing. Road racing is good for steady-state riding interspersed with high-intensity riding as the pack picks up the pace to contest a sprint or challenge a breakaway. Time trials are high-intensity for the duration of the distance, but it is important to learn how to pace for a different distance. The intensity and heart rates sustained for a 10-mile time trial will differ from those of a 50-mile time trial.

Appropriate gear selection can be crucial on hilly courses in time trials, road races, and mountain biking, allowing the athlete to maintain a good cadence. Due to mountain bike courses' faster-changing nature, these would be the best places to practice swift and efficient gear changes. Changing too early causes the rider to lose power on the pedals and changing too late can cause the gears to jam or the chain to come off.

Cornering skills can be learned on and off-road. Cornering swiftly and safely is key to gaining an advantage over the competition and relies on the timing of braking and correct selection of the line to take into and out of the corner. Braking needs to occur before the corner to avoid skidding when taking the corner and entry and exit of the corner should be wide where possible to straighten the corner. In track cycling where the corners are on steep slopes, cornering requires firm pressure on the pedals to keep the bike upright and avoid skidding down the track.

Mountain biking requires good core and upper body strength to manoeuvre the bike through tricky terrain, mainly to handle the bike on downhill sections where balance and coordination are vital. This transfers well to time trialling where good core strength makes it easier to maintain an aerodynamic position for the race duration, keeping the upper body still so that all effort and power goes to the legs. Powering the legs without losing effort via unnecessary upper body movements is useful for road racing and track cycling.

Steep hills that frequently occur as part of mountain bike courses are right for leg strength and explosive power, useful for road racing, time trialling, and track sprinting.

Time trialling requires a lot of mental concentration to remain focused on cycling at the required intensity for the distance. It is easy to get distracted by traffic and the position of other riders who can frequently be seen either ahead or on the other side of the road on their return leg. It is vital to keep an awareness of traffic, parked cars, and other road users whilst not being distracted. This skill can be used in road racing on a breakaway where the rider making the break needs to maintain focus to ride alone, sometimes for long periods, to win points and the race.


Whilst on the surface, the four disciplines of road racing, time trialling, mountain biking, and track cycling are very different, frequently requiring different bicycles and different cycling positions, and each offers skills that can be transferred to one or more of the other disciplines. This can add variety to training and allow a rider to maintain their motivation for training and racing all year round.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • HUNTER, D. (2007) Specificity and variety in cycling. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 45/ September), p. 9-10

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • HUNTER, D. (2007) Specificity and variety in cycling [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Dawn Hunter, a British Triathlon Association Club Coach, has been coaching individual triathletes and a triathlon club for over three years. She also competes in triathlons up to half ironman distance.