When Richard Bryne first moved from Florida to San Diego, CA he had to contend with something new on his rides: mountains. Obviously, he had to learn how to climb but at the same time he also realized he had as much to gain by learning how to descend faster.
PELOTON / Image Yuzuru: Sunada
Most of us know Richard as the man behind Speedplay pedals but his career has been long and colorful, working in the vanguard of cycling aerodynamics and positioning as well as a stint coaching at the San Diego Velodrome. It was at the San Diego Velodrome where he first began holding bike handling clinics—which gets us back to those San Diego mountains.
Richard was already an avid cyclist when he moved west, but he never had to descend at speed and he realized quickly he was not one of those lucky riders that instinctively knew the right line, like Peter Sagan or Fabian Cancellara. But, using the same sort of attitude that saw him reinvent the pedal, Richard knew good descending could be learned. Like any new skill he applied himself to acquiring it, becoming an absolute expert. Unlike those riders that use instinct to paint perfect lines down a mountainside and frequently can’t verbalize how they do it, Richard was uniquely qualified to pass his hard-won handling knowledge on.
Speedplay put Richard in front of some of the biggest pros in the world and he realized, despite what most fans think, many of them had plenty to learn about good bike handling. Watching some of these riders descend, Richard says, “Honestly, I cringe!”
As Richard sees it, becoming a better bike handler is free speed. “Bike handling is a skill that you can improve, just like watts per kilo. It’s one of the last vulnerabilities people have. It’s like climbing or time trialing—if you have a weakness other riders will exploit it. But like aerodynamics, it’s an advantage that doesn’t cost you anything in energy.”
He first mentioned his handling credentials to a pro after the 2005 Tour de France. This was the year Dave Zabriskie shocked the world, beating Lance Armstrong to the yellow jersey during the stage 1 time trial and then crashing spectacularly in the yellow jersey three days later. Over breakfast in Paris, Richard mentioned to Zabriskie he could help him become a better bike handler. While other riders may have taken offense, Zabriskie was forward thinking and saw the potential to become faster.
As it turned out, no one had ever taken the time to teach Zabriskie the basics of handling, and one of the reasons he became such a threat in the time trial was his apprehension in the pack. When the pack got sketchy he would simply break away. After he worked with Richard, his team director, Bjarne Riis was amazed at the difference. Suddenly Zabriskie was a different rider. Riis wondered if Richard might be able to help some of his other riders as well.
Before long, Richard was holding a handling clinic for three of Team CSC’s biggest stars: Brian Vandborg, Giovanni Lombardi and Ivan Basso. Vandborg was Basso’s wingman during many Grand Tours and Lombardi his training partner, so Riis thought it was important they all took the clinic together.
They worked on slow speed skills and pack racing skills, how to stay upright when someone overlaps your wheel, how to corner safely in a tight pack. Using the example of a school offish, Richard teaches riders to corner as a group, instead of picking their own line. Simply maintain the spatial relationship to the riders next to you and in that way the group can flow through technical corner after technical corner at high speed.
Richard and Ivan worked on racing lines, how to get through a corner maintaining as much speed as possible. A racing line is a racing line and you don’t need to be on the bike to learn how to hit them correctly. Richard took Ivan go-karting and even did laps around highway cloverleafs, learning how to choose a line. “I showed him where to look. Riders tend to look right in front of them but you have to be looking two zones ahead, looking at the exit, you take it all in but focus on the exit. It’s not natural to look where you need to when you are cornering quickly,” Bryne said.
“The key to any cornering is carrying your speed, you want to leave the corner with as much speed as possible, get the apex right and not brake. It takes the same amount of energy to slow from 30 to 15 mph as to accelerate from 15 to 30 mph—the exact same amount of kinetic energy.”
“Go further into the corner, you get a better view of the exit when you start your apex and you have more fudge factor at the exit. I see it constantly when guys dive into the inside and can’t make the corner. They do the math wrong,” Bryne claims. This leads to what Richard called “early in, early out,” meaning if you hit the apex too early you exit the corner too early, as in off the side of the road. When you are descending an alpine pass chasing the yellow jersey the results of getting a corner wrong can lead to more than just lost time, the results can be life threatening.
The handling clinics have a lot to offer even the most skilled riders. Giovanni Lombardi was a world champion, an Olympic champion and a Grand Tour stage winner when he took Richard’s handling clinic. He learned a new way to stay upright when a rider overlapped his wheel with a simple trick he had never heard before. As you touch wheels with the rider in front of you, quickly jump out of the saddle. As we all know from climbing in a group, when a rider jumps out of the saddle his bike shoots back up to a foot. This is more than enough to get your wheel off the rider in front and out of the danger zone.
Basso himself told Richard that even after spending years in the Italian federation no one had ever taught him anything about bike handling. Richard believes this is a case of “what they don’t know, they don’t know.” If the pros realized how much energy they could save by descending correctly, without the effort of jumping out of corners to close gaps they would take handling more seriously. But, they may be catching on. Peter Sagan, Vincenzo Nibali and even Chris Froome have shown how effectively descending with ‘la linea perfetta’ – the perfect line – can be used to win bike races.
For more about Richard and Speedplay check out our film series, The American Way.