Want to be a Better Road Cyclist? Then You Shouldn't Concentrate on Road Riding. Here's Why...

5 Tour de France riders who prove it's not all about getting saddle sores

Peter Sagan - just one of the top cyclists who got pretty good at road riding via mountain biking...
The secret to Peter Sagan’s success? Well it’s got something to do with his mountain biking background…

Most people will tell you that improving your road cycling is a question of slogging it out, putting in the hours in the saddle, watching your diet and working your arse off (literally in some cases!)

But what if most people have got it wrong? What if, rather than pounding away on tarmac roads for days on end, your riding would be better served by practising other disciplines like downhill mountain biking, cross country or even BMX?

“What if you riding would be better served by practising downhill mountain biking, or even BMX?”

It might sound ridiculous, but the bike handling skills these disciplines teach can be invaluable. Look no further than this year’s Tour de France for proof, where a lot of riders who come from other backgrounds have excelled.

As they prove in these famous examples, the following five pros are all noted for their bike handling ability. Skills which their backgrounds suggest weren’t learned on the roads…

1) Vincenzo Nibali

Vincenzo Nibali
Covered in mud, Vincenzo Nibali looked for all the world like a mountain biker in stage 5 of this year’s Tour de France. But he also looked perfectly at home. Photo: Sirotti

The Italian who is the currently the favourite to take the yellow winners jersey at the 2014 Tour de France is noted for his all-round ability, but particularly for the way his control of the bike on steep descents.

In a recent interview, he was asked about his descending prowess and put it down to his younger days as a child where he rode a lot of BMX and mountain bikes.

Clearly descending and having fun on a bike is key to Nibali, and has helped make him the rider he is today – someone who can handle the worst of road conditions with ease. Consider his 2013 Giro d’Italia win.

“Mountain biking helped make him the rider he is today.”

The race that was plagued by some fairly serious winter weather. Many riders struggled and the weather played a large part in Bradley Wiggins’ withdrawal, but Nibali excelled.

On stage 14, in freezing conditions, Nibali and another rider jumped clear of the pack with the Italian taking the stage win. Later in the race Nibali chose to attack on a snow-infested stage 20, putting 17 seconds into the nearest rider.

Not only is he great in terrible weather (as this video from the 2010 Giro d’Italia shows) he’s also good on rough road surfaces. On the cobbled roads that characterised Stage 5 of this year’s tour, Nibali rode really well, finishing second behind cobbles specialist Lars Boom, while his rivals fell by the wayside  (many of them literally).

2) Peter Sagan

Peter Sagan pulls one of his trademark wheelies.
Peter Sagan pulls one of his trademark wheelies.

Peter Sagan has gained notoriety for his sprint finishes (he’s currently wearing the green jersey given to the Tour de France’s best sprinter) and his ability to wheelie a road bike up any incline – sometimes with no hands. 

But fewer people know where he learned these skills. Prior to gaining a place on a professional team for one of the Grand Tours Sagan was both Junior World and European Mountain Bike Champion.

As recently as 2008 he gained a silver medal at the Junior Cross Country World Championships in Treviso. The video below is testament to both his bike handling and all-round skills as a cyclist.

At the Tour de Suisse in 2011, while in the leading pack up the last climb of the day, he was caught and overtaken by an on-form Damiano Cunego. The Italian then proceeded to open a considerable gap down the remaining descent.

Some way back, and on a damp Alpine road, Sagan made good the gap, knowing he would be able to out pace Cunego at the sprint for the stage win.

3) Fabian Cancellara

Fabian Cancellara - great on bad surfaces. Photo: Sirotti
Fabian Cancellara – great on bad surfaces. Photo: Sirotti

Although he’s pulled out of this year’s race, ‘Spartacus’ already proved himself as one of the greatest bike handlers of all time in the 2009 Tour de France.

The Swiss born Cancellara is apparently a keen mountain biker in his spare time and the skills he’s learned from riding the steeps of the Swiss alps have helped make him all but unstoppable on his day. Just watch this ride from stage 7 of the ’09 Tour, which made him a legend.

Having done enough to be wearing the Malloit Jaune (the yellow leader’s jersey) by stage 7, Cancellara was in a good position to stay in yellow for a good stint of the two week race.

Disaster then struck on the Port de Comte stage with two punctures that saw him falling behind the peloton and haemorraging time to his rivals. But they weren’t reckoning with what Cancellara could do when he got back on his bike – this is truly one of the greatest descents on a road bike ever.

He’s so focused on chasing the peloton down, he comes within inches of the white doctors’ car at 3:36. He can be seen visibly accelerating around some of the corners, even faster than the cars and TV bikes around the outside of some of the turns!

4) Cadel Evans

cadel evans
Cadel Evans generally performs pretty well in terrible weather. Photo: Sirotti

Cadel Evans, the Tour de France winner in 2011, started his cycling career very much like Peter Sagan. Evans won the Junior World Mountain Bike Championships in 1995, before winning the Mountain Bike World Cup Series Overall in both 1998 and 1999.

His final major appearance on a mountain bike would be at his home Olympics in Sydney in 2000, where he finished 7th.

This short, sharp clip from the 2009 Tour de Romandie shows Cadel Evans and fellow BMC rider Philipe Gilbert giving it some serious lick down a rather patchy road.

The surface here is unpredictable with so many potholes having been repaired, but Cadel Evans is clearly looking to get a knee down on some of these turns.

At one point, they even catch one of the TV bikes that holds them up and you can clearly hear Evans shouting at them to get out of the way.

5) Jakob Fuglsang

jakob-fuglsang
Jakob Fuglsang is riding as a domestique for Nibali this year, but is a damn fine rider in his own right. Photo: Sirotti

Young Danish rider Jakob Fuglsang is serving as one of Nibali’s domestiques this year, sacrificing his own ambitions to help his Astana team mate to the Tour de France victory.

But as he explained in a recent interview, he’s still hopeful of a top 10 finish, something he proved himself more than capable of by coming in 7th last year.

Like Nibali, he excelled on the tricky, wet cobblestones of stage 5, leading the Italian out to the front and finishing in third.

“He also has a mountain biking background.”

It’s no surprise then to find out that he also has a mountain biking background. In 2007 he won the Danish Marathon National Mountain Biking Championship, and the under 23 category at the Cross Country Mountain Bike World Championship.

He followed this up with wins at the Danish Junior Champs for Cross Country in both 2008 and 2009.

And while we haven’t seen any incredible descents from him yet, we’d be willing to bet that he’s goes downhill like shit off a shovel.

All of which suggests that, if you want to be really, really good at road riding, it might be worth switching up your carbon-fibre Bianchi bike for something a little more robust every now and then.

Why not head for the hills and practise on jumps and berms? You might just learn something useful… And if not? Well, at least it’ll be a bit of fun…

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