I have spent the past two weeks in New York. I’ve written before about cycling in Jamaica, Queens, NY, so won’t repeat it all. But it’s a tough place to cycle; even supposedly quiet residential roads can have cars (nearly always SUVs) accelerating at top speed. It’s a little scary place to cycle, which is probably why it’s so rare to see a cyclist in Queens.
But, the one great piece of good fortune is the outdoor velodrome of Kissena Boulevard. It is bumpy concrete, but it is traffic free and a safe place to cycle. It seems always open, and perhaps just one or two other cyclists going around during the week day.
The only training during the two weeks was to cycle two miles to the velodrome then ride for an hour at varying degrees of intensity. It’s no joke cycling around a velodrome for an hour. Not as boring as being on a turbo, but it gave a new respect for track cyclists. I was caught between gratitude for having a velodrome to cycle on and the difficulty in motivating myself to keep riding around in circles.
The weather forecast for today was sun and westerley wind. I thought I would be clever and get a train from Bingley to Clapham and avoid a long slog into a headwind. It partly worked out because the wind was strong, but ‘light occasional showers’ obviously means something very different west of Settle.
First up was a new climb south from Clapham towards the Trough of Bowland called Bowland Knotts. It is a climb from 100 climbs, and I probably wouldn’t have thought of taking this road without a desire to tick off a few more climbs in the book. The road was certainly very isolated and quiet. In a long ascent and descent, I think I only saw one car, four people and a dog. It’s not mid-summer, but if you’re looking for traffic free roads, this is as good as it gets.
The climb is a long drag of 4 miles plus – averaging only 4%, but with a strong side wind, it was tough going, though some great views partly compensated. Looking back down the hill, it reminded me somewhat of the bleak open climb of the Stang in North Yorkshire. Though this climb has no 17% gradient to start off with.
I remember when I was 13, going on a cycle holiday with a friend to Lofthouse. One day, we rode 75 miles on mountain bikes, including Greenhow hill and Trapping Hill in Nidderdale (which seemed like mountains at the time). The furthest we had been before was about 20 miles. It was an epic ride and for about four days after, we couldn’t walk properly. It was kind of an interesting experience to do something so far out of my comfort zone and capacity. In the whole of my cycling career, I have never been so shattered or literally crawled into a sleeping bag after a long bike ride. Perhaps because of this chastening experience, I’ve always prepared carefully for long distance riding – making sure I’m sufficiently trained before making a big jump in mileage. In a nutshell, you can always try and do long distances untrained, but it’s a lot more pleasant if you can make sufficient training to get used to the long distance.
Training for long distance sportives
Quite a few people ask about advice for doing a big ride, perhaps a hilly 100 mile sportive. There is no particular set training plan you need to follow, but as a few guiding principles, I would suggest.
If you’re starting from no training at all, any cycling is going to help build up fitness. The first thing is just to go out on the bike, increase the distance each time and get used to being in the saddle for a longer time. If you start off with a 30 mile ride, each week try to add another 10 miles on.
Long rides. For a sportive that might take 6-7 hours, if you can manage to do training rides of 3-4 hours, you will be a long way to getting ready for the endurance. If possible, try and do a few 5 hour rides. The more you can do the better, but a weekly long ride of 3-4 hours will be reasonable preparation.
Decent intensity. If you are time pressed and struggling to find time for a long ride, to some extent, you can make up for the lack of miles, by increasing the intensity of cycling. For some of the training rides, try and maintain a good pace – just below your threshold. This maybe around 18-20mph on a flatish course or 90% of FTP, 80-85% max heart rate. Some call it sweet spot training. You may find that you can only maintain this level for an hour, then you start to slow down. Training at this higher level has a bigger training benefit, but has the added benefit of not being as tiring like full on intervals.
Mix up training. If you are able to get some base fitness from riding for a couple of months, it will then be helpful to mix up the training – not just plodding along at same effort all the time. You can start to do some hill intervals. You don’t have to go at 100% all out pace, but it will be good practise for the hills on the big ride.
Stress and recovery. The basic principle of training is stress and recovery. You stress muscles by doing more than before – recovery then allows your muscles to become stronger. If you are tired from training too much, rest and recovery will be the biggest help. It depends how many hours you have to train. If it is only a small number, you are unlikely to be over-training.
How long to prepare?
The longer you can prepare, the better. For a 100 mile sportive, you could just about get ready in a couple of months. But, if you can have some base fitness over winter, then you will be in a much better position, rather than having to start from scratch in April.
A good question is whether racing makes good training or whether to be in the best form for races, you should do less racing and more training. And the other thing is what to do when you haven’t got any races.
Often when watching Eurosport you will hear people talk about riders lacking race fitness. For example, you can spend four weeks on a training camp, but it is only doing actual races that really brings about top form. For example, Chris Froome came to the Tour of Catalunya after a big training block in South Africa, but compared to his usual form, looked a little off the pace. However, at other times, riders like Quintana have come out of training in Columbia and gone straight into good racing form in races.
The other school of thought is that too much racing can interfere with gaining peak performance. For example, in Graeme Obree’s training book – he talks about the need to cut back on racing so that it doesn’t interfere with his training schedule. But, Obree had a really unique approach to training – go all out for an hour then spend 2-4 days recovering.
I’m thinking about this issue because my next race won’t be for a month, which is quite a long time at this stage in the season.
Advantages of racing as training
You can guarantee in a race, you will have the best motivation to go as hard as you can for the race duration. I sometimes do private time trials where I ride around roads and measure my time. But, I never seem to go as hard as in a race. Often in these private time trials, I even give up after 75% of the imagined course. There’s no one there to make you get to the finish.
A key element of getting to peak performance is stretching yourself and making more effort than previously. To get this new peak, a race can be an excellent way of getting more out of yourself.
Technical aspects of racing. Whether time trials or road racing, a big component is the technical aspect – tactics and pacing. If you rely on training, these other aspects can become rusty. Racing a course like Buxton yesterday, forces you to think about pacing (wrong again), and technical aspects of cornering. It is also a test for things like equipment, clothes and pre-race strategy. These things can take more practise than you might imagine. As an amateur with no one to hand clothes, I’m often fumbling around in the back of the car with 20 minutes to go looking for some item of clothing e.t.c.
Early February is time to get the time trial bike down from the loft. I last rode the TT bike back in September, and that was a short hill climb in Buxton. I have done a few perfunctory core strength exercises over the winter, e.g. the plank for one minute a couple of times per week, 20 sit ups since Jan 1st, but nothing like enough to get the body ready for a super, uncomfortable, aerodynamic position.
Despite the initial physical discomfort of riding a TT bike – on the positive side it is always a boost to get on the time trial bike, after a few months on a relatively slow winter training bike. Suddenly you feel as though you’re flying along. In fact in previous years, I’ve joked that getting on TT bike can feel like getting on a motorbike, as you race around town at 20mph +. But, alas, that innocent observation no longer seems quite so innocent given recent shenanigans in Belgium and depressing evidence of hidden motors in bicycles. It’s both a tragedy and farce, and not much comedy, save a little related news about participants and a stolen parrot, “A Norwegian Blue” I presume.
A popular bit of banter at local time trials was for a slow ride to joke to a fast rider – “Have you got a motor in there?!” This banter is all said in good fun, but now, it might not be so funny any-more. Especially, if bike was left unattended for a long time…
Anyway, the crazy world of cycling can’t change the essential practice of cycling which is to pedal a lot until it hurts. And if you’re riding a time trial bike for the first time in five months, you can guarantee it will start to hurt in quite a lot of places you had forgotten all about.
On Tuesday, I did quite a hard 75 mile ride to Stow on the Wold. I averaged 18.5 mph, which was a high average speed, given it was quite windy. I’m trying to do some sweet spot training at around 250-70 watts. I managed this for the first two hours grind into the wind. On the way back, I eased off the power, but went faster with nice tail wind behind. It’s great fun cycling with strong tailwind, but this persistent Westerly wind is getting a bit tiresome. It’s hard work going west.
Yesterday, I did a steady two hours on the time trial bike. I’m glad it was no longer than two hours, as I felt quite sore in different parts of back, and even legs. Although, it was a relatively easy ride on power, it felt quite tiring. Moral of the story, if you want to race on a time trial bike, you have to train a lot on the bike too. Ideally, I would have been riding on a time trial bike all winter. But, I don’t like getting the new bike spoilt by salty wet roads. Anyway from now on the TT bike, will be used most rides. The good news is that once you start training on the bike, the body adapts and initial discomfort becomes much more manageable. Last year it got to the situation where I found a TT bike more comfortable than a road bike.
Training on time trial bike
Different position works different muscles
Back needs to adapt to flatter aerodynamic position
Neck works harder looking forward whilst being lower down.
Doesn’t handle quite as easily as a road bike, so it is good to practise technical aspects. Though ideally you would train with disc and deep section wheels. But, I prefer to save expensive tubulars and wheels for races, so just train on ordinary clinchers.
Maybe it was different power meter, but it seemed much harder to get same power as on road bike.
From Oxford, I don’t often cycle south towards Wantage and Lambourne. The countryside is relatively flat and featureless. At this time of the year, it’s a long slog through empty fields, dotted with the odd tree. When you have the Chilterns and Cotswolds on your doorstep, you are spoilt for choice and hills. Also, cycling around north of Wantage, there are many stop and starts as you turn left, right, left e.t.c. When training, I like as much possible to have a quiet road, which is uninterrupted for as long as possible. I don’t like having to slow down at give way signs. Maybe its the psychology of being a timetriallist, where you always looking for an uninterrupted way to cycle 50 miles, with as fast turns as possible.
The most interesting thing about this part of the world, is the old English place names, Goosey, Charney Bassett, Uffington, Sparsholt Firs. There are even place names around here that J.R.R. Tolkien used in his Lord of the Rings, e.g. Buckland.
The one exception to the flat, featureless plans is the White Horse, which offers a steep climb (Dragon Hill Road), offering a great view over the Vale of White Horse plain.
The national hill climb now feels like a long time ago. The season has changed – both in terms of weather and the approach to cycling. Rather than eyeballs out for 4 minutes, it’s time to dust off the winter training bike and get ready for relatively long slow miles through the foggy Oxfordshire surroundings.
The day after the national hill climb, I got the winter training bike down from the loft, the difference in speed and weight was too much, and I wanted to put it back up in loft. So I’m still riding the Emonda whilst the weather is relatively good. I know from bitter experience that by early Dec, many of the quiet roads around here become barely indistinguishable from muddy farm tracks, and I will have surrendered to riding at 15mph on thick Armadillo tyres, mudguards, winter overshoes and three pairs of gloves. But, if I can get a few rides in November on a summer bike, that is an added bonus.
Getting lost – finding new roads
Oxford is a great place to cycle, if only for the sheer diversity of routes, roads and directions you can take. I’ve been in Oxford since 1994, and I still am finding new roads to rides. When training, I tend to stick routes I know well – the last thing you want when you’re really training hard – is getting lost and wondering where to go next. November becomes a good opportunity to follow the proverbial nose – head in a general direction and take which ever road appeals. This is one of the best ways to learn all the intricate lanes and stock pile possible training routes for next year. It’s OK, so long as you don’t head completely in the wrong direction.
At this time of the year, quite a few people email me for tips for hill climb training / intervals. It is hard to reply:
Hill climb training is quite individual depending on general fitness / condition. For example, the training I do know is different to when I first started cycling. Years of training have enabled me to cope with a greater volume of training than in the early days.
It is not false modesty to say I have no particular qualifications or knowledge of training. I have accumulated bits of knowledge and tried to use what works for me, but it is somewhat ad-hoc and individual.
Occasionally, people ask if I would consider becoming a cycle coach. The honest answer is that the idea of becoming a cycle coach doesn’t appeal to me at all. There are certainly plenty of coaches to choose from though!
I found an article I published on an old cycling blog in 2010 – Called ‘interval training tips. The funny thing is that I ended up revising almost everything in the article! It would have been easier to write new article. It shows I’m always changing my mind about what is a good way to train. I suppose in the past few years I’ve gained more experience, (e.g. using power meter and having coach in 2014)
It is hopefully a start for some interval training tips, though there is always more to add. See also similar article – Hill climb intervals.
Over the years I’ve gleaned a few bits from Cycling Weekly’s training advice. One thing they always seem to go on about is ‘core strength’ i.e. making the lower and middle body stronger to hold a good position when cycling. I’ve never paid too much attention to this aspect of cycling. I’ve always leaned to the more ‘Obree’ approach of relying on just riding the bike. However, after having spent quite a few hours on the bike in the past few weeks, I’ve felt ‘core strength’ really is important. Last week, I did two big rides – one very hilly on a road bike, and another four hour ride on my time trial bike. On both rides, the most difficult thing was the pain in lower back and neck.
In Cycling Weekly this week, they said the most common reason for abandoning the ‘Race Across America RAAM)’ was discomfort in the back and neck, and if riders had a second chance, they would have done more core strength training to improve their chances of staying on the bike.
Another thing which I noticed last week, was watching a recent time trial in the Criterium Dauphine. Contador looked all over the place – wiggling from one side to the other. (Contador would probably benefit from using a Kask Bambino – his aero helmet always seemed to be pointing to the stars creating a lot of drag) A smooth position, where riders can hold their body constant is generally considered more efficient.
I reviewed the Obree Way last year, but it cost £30 (which was a bit pricey even for a good book.) But I see it’s available in paperback for £11.99 now. The Obree Way at Amazon.co.uk
The Obree way is Graeme Obree’s unique and distinctive approach to training. It is an approach to training Obree developed himself over many years of his own successful cycling career. The book is worth reading just from the perspective of gaining an insight into the training and mentality of a World Champion, you also gain the feeling the author really put is heart and soul into the book. I think every cyclist will be able to pick up something from this training manual.
One thing I liked about reading the book is that I always felt Obree was just sat across the room talking about his training. It was like listening to an old club hand share his training secrets. But, in this case the old ‘club hand’ happens to have held the prestigious world hour record on two occasions and also is a former world champion. Obree’s pedigree definitely is important. If some of these training principles were explained by Tom, Dick or Harry you might be tempted to brush them off as being too obvious or too simple. But, if they worked for Obree, you give them much more importance.
Essential Aspects of the Obree Way.
Turbo Trainer To Obree, the turbo trainer is a key element of his training. It’s not something just to use when the weather turns icey, but even in the middle of summer. Obree wants to have the ability to very carefully monitor his progress and make sure a training session actually stretches his previous effort; the best way he feels is to use a simple turbo training carefully calibrated to measure exact performance. At this point, in the book I did think perhaps the same could have been achieved from power-meters. But, Obree’s way is largely to ignore computer data. (He says the only time he really uses a heart rate monitor is to make sure on a recovery ride, you stick to a recovery ride.)
Obree doesn’t believe in intervals. To him the best training is to replicate the kind of race you will be doing.
“Specific training for specific events. Everything else is peripheral and less effective than the base truth of athletic performance enhancement.”
If you are doing 10 mile time trials, a key training session is to do a 20 minute ride on the turbo as go as fast as you can. Later in the training cycle, after a sufficient time period to recover (could be several days). You have another go at this 20 minute ride, but aim to improve on your previous performance. The simple aim is every time you do one of these ‘key’ training sessions you push your limits and go faster than before. This is the simple training principle of ‘stress and recovery‘ You keep pushing your limits, give yourself chance to fully recover and then push your limits again.
It is beautifully simple. There you won’t find any ’30 seconds at 95%, 1 min rest; 30 seconds at 95% type training sessions.‘
Another important training session for Obree, is the ‘glycogen ride’ This is a two hour ride, where you adapt the body to riding with low sugar levels to improve the body’s use of glycogen stores when racing. He says you should finish this training session really exhausted and ready to devour food (which you have prepared beforehand)
Obree also advocates incorporating a session of strength training. This involves pushing a huge gear on a gentle hill at a very low cadence.