If you truly want to improve in the competitive sport of cycling you first need to learn who you are in the sport. For me, coaching a sport, and for the athlete; learning a sport, begins first with simply understanding the sport.
What’s crazy to me is that if we look at the history of the sport, the cycling world does just the opposite! The majority of cyclists I see believe that they first need to get fit, get lean, and go fast BEFORE they can begin to learn the workings of the sport of cycling. While this seems like a sensible strategy, it's a poor one. Why? Because people end up wasting time learning bad techniques and often trying to master the popular FTP blanket approach to cycling.
Just raise your FTP, lose a bunch of weight, and then go faster. Right? Wrong. Too often I see athletes and coaches alike holding themselves back right from the start, obsessing around the simple and general concept of FTP, or functional threshold power. This approach is physically expensive, not sustainable, and does not translate to truly getting faster and better in the sport of cycling. Athletes and coaches get led off course chasing the pot of FTP gold under the rainbow and go off course learning and master the true intricacies of the sport of cycling.
Cycling is a sport just like many of the popular ball sports we are all familiar with. There are different players, there are different roles, and there are different techniques. Most of us start ball sports at a young age where we have coaches that teach us different techniques. But in cycling, many of us find it later in life, and because of that we tend to rely on our buddies, or the strongest riders in our local community, to learn from. With this method we typically skip over learning all the techniques and concepts, and instead focus on what we can feel: power. We feel where we fall short compared to others, and we tend to focus on trying to get more power in hopes we will be able to be as strong as them. Listen to me: it’s a trap.
While power and strength IS important, it is not all created equal. There are different techniques behind delivering power, different styles and combinations in executing that power, and different durations that are used for the power. Just like in ball sports, cycling also has different positions. While this is almost always overlooked, it is so true and it can be so liberating to find the position in cycling you both are made for, as well as enjoy being.
My Personal Rider Type Discovery
I will never forget the day I figured out what kind of rider I was. I had been racing mountain bikes for a couple of years and had done pretty well. I trained a lot with my friend Neil. I looked up to Neil because he was older and stronger than me. We would ride rain or shine, usually on the trails near our houses.
To get to the trailhead, we had to ride up a long road climb (long by Connecticut standards is around 6 minutes). But every day on our way to the trailhead I would get excited and gun it up this climb. One day I did my thing and looked back; Neil was pretty far behind. As he caught up, I could hear him breathing hard. He looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Dude, you are a climber.” With my limited experience only in mountain biking, I stared blankly and asked him, “What’s a climber?” He said, “You know, a skinny guy that goes up hills fast.” He then pointed to my legs and told me they were long and skinny—good for climbing. Then pointed to my barrel chest and said that it was also good for climbing.
I stood there dumbfounded and thought to myself, you mean this strange body of mine has a name and a purpose? My mind was blown, and my world changed forever. More specifically, my perspective of myself within the sport changed. Before coming to this realization, I had turned myself inside out during training and even more so in racing, trying to be the absolute best at every aspect of mountain biking. If the race course was flat and I was beaten, I would assume I had a bad day. If someone was faster than I was on a downhill section, I would beat myself up for not being good enough and resolve to train even harder. Mentally, I was completely worn down, and physically I was spreading myself too thin in my quest to be the best at every dimension of the sport.
But when the way I viewed myself changed, a whole new world opened up to me. Instead of trying to go fast during the entire race, I changed my pacing strategy so I could go bananas on the hills. Before the races, I would pick out all the climbs and plan my moves. If some guys were faster than me on the downhill, I knew I had to go that much faster on the climbs to beat them. I had a solution to my problems, whereas before I thought the answer was that I just wasn’t good enough. Game changer!
The Four Rider Type in the Sport of Cycling
From years of analysis as a professional athlete and coach, I’ve concluded that there are four different types of riders in the sport. Some rider types present an obvious contrast, such as the difference between a climber and a sprinter. Some may share specific attributes but have subtle differences that completely change their approach to training and winning races.
The four Rider Types are: Puncheur, Climber, Classics TT, and Classics Sprinter.
These four Rider Types work in all areas of cycling (road, mountain, gravel, cyclocross, track,) however, I will use road to detail them out as it is the simplest way to understand the differences. The easiest way to explain the Rider Type is to consider this: If I were a team director and I wanted to sign you onto my Tour de France team, what position would you fill?
Different types of riders specialize in different races and individual stages, and they vary widely in shape, size, and abilities, as well as in personalities. But all play a valuable role in a Tour de France team. Each team in the race will have identified its targets and will create a group to help achieve these goals, which are usually focused around their team leader—the rider they feel is most capable of winning the competition they are targeting (such as general classification, points, or King of the Mountains). Each is a tool to be used very intentionally.
Professionals don’t go to a race like the Tour de France wondering what role they have or with anything less than an outline of their strategy. Likewise, you shouldn’t go to your race or ride without knowing precisely what you are trying to accomplish and, more importantly, how you are going to do it.
There are countless ways to win a race. With so many types of races these days, such as hill climbs, gravel grinders, endurance time trials, stage races, and criteriums, there’s something for every kind of rider to love. You don’t even need to be of a certain rider type to be successful in events that are conducive to that rider type. When I was racing, I witnessed firsthand a great example of this truth at the 2009 Tour de Suisse, won by Fabian Cancellara. In case you haven’t heard of him, Cancellara is a gold-medal-winning Olympic time trialist, a one-day classics specialist, and a stellar domestique for his teammates who have general classification aspirations. The Tour de Suisse is a nine-day stage race that ends two weeks before the Tour de France starts and, along with the Critérium du Dauphine, is seen as an ideal race for riders to test their form before the July showdown. Cancellara was born in Switzerland, so this race obviously meant a lot to him, but it’s a mountainous race with many strong climbers at their peak fitness, so, not being a natural climber, he had to be calculated in his approach to this race. Day one of the race was the prologue, a very short, intense time trial effort. He won it outright by 19 seconds. It was impressive that he put that amount of time on the second-place finisher in such a short distance, but it was not entirely outside of his wheelhouse of specialties.
Cancellara is a 6'1," 180-pound ball of muscle, so he’s much more suited to time trial efforts than to floating up mountains. What impressed me was the way he rode the climbs. He had his team drill it on the flatter parts of the race, making it hard for a break to get away. Even when he was isolated with just climbers, he would accelerate on the troughs of the climbs, forcing us all to accelerate hard to keep up so we were gassed for the steep sections. He made it all but impossible to attack. When he did get disconnected on the climbs, instead of panicking or trying to go with the climber’s attacks and then subsequently blowing up, he just let them go up the road and brought them back steadily in a way that suited his rider type. Cancellara did lose some time to the GC riders over the next few stages, and was third going into the last stage, a time trial. But then he absolutely demolished the TT, winning by 1:27 and taking the overall! It was clearly an impressive feat, considering the type of rider he is . . . and he accomplished it by staying true to his Rider Type.
What Rider Type are you? Let’s have a look at each one to see which one sounds closest to you!!!
Rider Type - Puncheur
The Puncheur is an explosive athlete who uses their power in short bursts on climbs 2 to 8 minutes in length. They are the most feared riders on these short climbs due to their ability to drop both the sprinters and the mountain climbers with incredible bursts of power uphill. They thrive on rolling to shark-tooth-profile rides, but are able to hold their own on flat, high-speed routes because of their strength. Puncheurs also can use their short but explosive power bursts to do well in short TTs or long, hard field sprints. These riders are quite well built, as far as cyclists go, with broader shoulders and bigger legs; they tend to seem the most balanced physically. Their attacking style of riding often comes into play near the end of long stages as the day’s break is being reeled in, or in stages that end in a short, steep climb. Puncheurs are the Hollywood actors of the group. Puncheurs are all about the show. That’s not necessarily a negative thing. They just love a platform to showcase their abilities. They are great storytellers and don’t subscribe to what everyone else is doing. They love the thrill of putting it all on the line. But at the end of the day, they are in it for the experience and notoriety. They don’t stress too much about the end result. But they are confident in their abilities and perform with panache. Puncheurs are highly aware of their strengths and don’t fall into the trap of comparing themselves to other rider types. They will try for the win and if it doesn’t happen, they chill out and wait for the next chance. Even if they are dropped, you won’t see them pouting or throwing their bike into the bushes. They are out there having a party, whether it’s off the front or in the grupetto. But they aren’t willing to take on a role that’s not the leading role. You won’t see a puncheur racing for 18th place. They want to be the star of the show, and if they don’t get the opportunity, they accept it and look for another role. But they aren’t going to become an extra in someone else’s film.
The Makings of a Puncheur:
Pro Rider Examples: Alejandro Valverde, Philippe Gilbert, Coryn Rivera
Physique: Shorter, solid frame, muscular, ideal center of gravity.
Physical Strengths: Explosive speed for longer efforts, strong at producing power both in and out of the saddle, prefers variable-pace riding, can do short explosive efforts, and is a good sprinter, strong on short climbs, and strong in very short time trials.
Physical Weaknesses: Powerful sustained efforts on the flats, crosswinds, multi-day stage races or hard efforts, long time trials, and endurance and recovery are not as good as that of the climbers or GC riders.
Mental Strengths: Aggressive, determined, resilient, strong mental endurance, and intense short-term focus.
Mental Weaknesses: Often too focused on other riders, struggles with intense focus for long periods of time, and uncomfortable with physical pressure on long climbs.
Ideal Races/Events: Endurance events with short, punchy climbs, short time trials, criteriums, and shorter road races with explosive uphill finishes.
Ideal Race-Winning Strategy: Explosive, surging race that comes down to a small group in the finish. Ideally the finish is an uphill in which the puncheur wins the sprint from the small group.
Rider Type - The Climber
The Climber is the most romantic rider in cycling’s culture. The climber uses their unique style and body dynamics to ascend roads that most others fear. These featherweight riders seem almost as if they are dancing up the big climbs. They thrive on longer, mountainous ascents where the speed drops and drafting benefits are limited. Pacing and clearing lactate are vital. Due to their low weight, climbers are able to put in repeated accelerations to drop heavier rivals. Their high endurance levels enable them to recover quickly. The climber is an artist, highly creative and usually the most introverted of the types. They are gifted people with all the talent in the world. Whether that talent translates into any real results is up to the individual. Some use their talents to become extremely successful, while others never sell a single piece of work. Climbers are just fine riding alone and prefer to ride hills at their pace, their way. Each has a unique style. Preferring to plan their moves and react to terrain rather than other people, they race against the course and are not interested in other people’s opinions. They have a quiet confidence. Climbers express themselves through their bike, painting pictures on the climbs with their signature styles. In fact, you’ll rarely see two climbers with identical riding styles. Sometimes you will see climbers converting into a general classification rider, becoming the leaders of their team. These types of climbers resemble more of a musical artist rather than a painter—they’re more like a lead singer in a rock band: Think Axl Rose, Mick Jagger, and John Lennon. These riders like to put on a show. They are most comfortable when they are center stage with their bandmates surrounding them, putting on the performance of a lifetime. But there’s a lot of pressure that comes from being “the guy.” When things don’t go their way, they can become emotional. They animate the race with their colorful personalities and flair. A lot of times you will see them hiring their friends as teammates or a family member on the team staff. Their entourage helps them feel supported, which is key to their success and sometimes failings. Climbers are arguably some of the most successful riders in the sport, but without a team of trustworthy people around they are predisposed to self-destruction.
Pro Rider Examples: Egan Bernal, Alberto Contador, Katie Hall, Marco Pantani
Physique: Smaller stature, lean, lightweight
Physical Strengths: Strong power-threshold zones, strong endurance, favors out of-the-saddle riding to develop power, prefers explosive riding, can change rhythm quickly, strong on all types of climbs, and strong multi-day recovery.
Physical Weaknesses: All time trials, flat roads, crosswinds, rough roads, and sprint finishes.
Mental Strengths: High pain tolerance, aggressive, determined, intense short and long focus, and strong mental endurance.
Mental Weaknesses: Executes on impulse and emotion, Often overly driven on emotion
Ideal Races/Events: Mountaintop finish during stage races, mountainous one-day events, hill climbs.
Ideal Race-Winning Strategy: Attack! Climbers embrace pain and love to attack. They are the first to attack in the most difficult spot on a climb and then solo away. If that doesn’t work, they attack, follow, attack . . . until the elastic snaps.
Rider Type - Classics Time Trial Rider
The Classics Time Trial rider is an endurance-centric athlete who matches this ability with unmatched short, explosive power, creating a unique ability to time trial. They are the hard men and women of cycling who embrace difficult terrain, harsh conditions, and adventure. They can ride solo off the front of a group, climb medium-length hills well, time trial strongly, and ride at a high level in the peloton. This rider is like an engineer, who is methodical in their approach to almost everything in life. They love to analyze data and solve complicated problems and are rarely seen out of control. They approach situations with logic rather than emotion. They rarely go into competitions without a solid plan that they’ve forged through research and experience. They have a very specific way of doing things, which lends itself to a certain degree of stubbornness. If this develops, they can get in their own way. Whether it’s at a spring classic or a gravel event, these athletes are gritty and are not shaken easily. The
Makings of a Classics TT
Rider Pro Rider Examples: Fabian Cancellara, Bradley Wiggins, Chloé Dygert Owen, Thomas De Gendt.
Physique: Taller, muscular, long femurs.
Physical Strengths: Strong endurance, powerful, favors in-the-saddle riding to develop power, prefers steadier riding overall, explosive ability, can do both short explosive efforts and longer sustained TT-like efforts, and steady shallow climbing.
Physical Weaknesses: Long sustained climbs, long climbs with terrain changes, and multi-day stage races or hard efforts.
Mental Strengths: Gritty, determined, resilient, strong mental endurance, and intense short focus.
Mental Weaknesses: Often too focused on other riders, struggles with intense focus for long periods of time, and uncomfortable with physical pressure on climbs.
Ideal Races/Events: Rolling endurance events, events with rough terrain or difficult weather conditions like rain, wind, cold, and or mud, short and long time trials, and endurance time trials.
Ideal Race-Winning Strategy: In a hard, long race of attrition, break the group down to a select few. Win with a strong solo attack or ride away from the other riders.
Rider Type - Classics Sprinter
The Classics Sprinter is an endurance-centric athlete who converts unmatched short, explosive power into a potent sprint. They are also hardmen and -women of cycling who embrace difficult terrain, harsh conditions, and adventure. They can make the key selections on short climbs, crosswinds, or rough terrain, and can ride at a high level in the peloton. Then, this rider closes the deal by beating everyone in a finish-line sprint. The career most similar to the Sprinter is a fighter pilot. We’ve all seen the film “Top Gun,” right? To be a fast jet pilot, you must be confident and quick, and able to do what’s needed, even when the going gets tough. If you’re a fighter pilot, you have to be ready to fight and stay calm amongst the chaos. You have to have the right height-to-weight ratio to fit in the cockpit— and be ready to jump out in emergencies. Fighter jets can go more than twice the speed of sound, or 25 miles in a minute. Only the best pilots in the world can fly a plane that fast: You have to be able to think and act very quickly. You must be comfortable flying in the pack but also flying solo. Classics sprinters frequently have to put out giant efforts at big speeds in a very chaotic and dangerous environment. They hide in the peloton, conserving energy and waiting until it’s their turn to launch. They rely heavily on their teammates, but ultimately it’s up to them to get the job done. They cover moves, following the train to outsprint the less-explosive riders at the end of a grueling race. They do not give up easily and might try lots of different approaches until they get the result they want. They have a keen ability to read the race and react accordingly. Their downfall is that they are often overconfident in their own abilities, so they don’t always do the necessary positioning to set themselves up for the win. They aren’t afraid of situations others would deem dangerous, so they are predisposed to taking risks unnecessarily, leading to crashes. Classics Sprinters are ready to risk it all in the name of glory.
Pro Rider Examples: Tom Boonen, Peter Sagan, Kirsten Wild, Greg Van Avermaet
Physique: Shorter, more solid rider, muscular, ideal center of gravity.
Physical Strengths: Strong endurance, powerful, strong at producing power both in and out of the saddle, prefers non-steady riding, explosive ability, can do both short explosive efforts and is a good sprinter, good on short, explosive climbs, and strong in super-short time trials.
Physical Weaknesses: Long sustained climbs, long climbs with terrain changes, multi-day stage races or hard efforts, and long time trials.
Mental Strengths: Gritty, aggressive, determined, resilient, strong mental endurance, and intense short focus.
Mental Weaknesses: Often too focused on other riders, struggles with intense focus for long periods of time, and uncomfortable with physical pressure on climbs.
Ideal Races/Events: Endurance events on rolling terrain, events with rough terrain or difficult weather conditions like rain, wind, cold, and mud, gravel races, short time trials, criteriums, and shorter road races.
Ideal Race-Winning Strategy: Explosive, surging race that comes down to a small group in the finish, from which this sprinter will win the sprint.
Now that you have seen the four Rider Types in detail, does one stand out the closest to you. It’s ok to feel like you are a cross between two. In general I find that most people have one genetic Rider Type and then one Rider Type tendency. What I mean by tendency is that this is where mentally you tend to go when under pressure to make a real-time decision.
For example, I often find Classics Sprinters riding with Classics TT tendencies. Attacking themselves rather than waiting to follow attacks from others. Thinking they can solo away rather than focusing on the simple need of making the front selection than winning the sprint. I see the same with Puncheurs having Climber tendencies. Attacking at the bottoms of long climbs, rather than being patient, trying to follow, and then winning the climb with an explosive effort.
To help you further hone in on your Rider Type, and your Rider Type tendency, I have created a quiz for you to take. After you are done, check the results. The dominant Rider Type you answered is likely your Rider Type, and the second most selected one is your tendency. However, I have found some athletes answer with their tendency as the dominant Rider Type. The best way to truly know the difference is to critically look at your past cycling performances and what you deem to be your physical strengths and see how they best line up with the Rider Type details.