Old-school winter training, the European way

November is a miserable month in Vancouver, home of le grimpeur. The end of daylight saving time means no more after-work riding in daylight and it is also the month on the calendar with the most rain. With the end of a long summer and a gentle autumn, no one appreciates the encroaching darkness and the incessant dampness.

It is also the time when all thoughts turn to winter training and one can expect a veritable proliferation of articles dealing with the topic. There are no shortage of plans for those staying on their bikes, and no limit to the principles which can be applied regarding duration, intensity, cadence, and so on. For any rider whose eyes glaze over at a table showing a weekly schedule, le grimpeur recommends the excellent advice from Pez Cycling News, busting a few myths of winter training.

For those looking for a bit more traditional inspiration, your author has compiled the perfect winter and spring training plan, distilled from the collective old-school wisdom of the European peloton.

An Italian winter

In their book on road racing, Bernard Hinault and Claude Genzling note that: “There used to be a more definite break in winter and extra pounds were common at the time of the traditional return to training on the Cote d’Azur [in February].”

Hin 80
Hinault knew all about suffering in the cold.

Greg LeMond called this the Italian philosophy. “The Italians always take two months off their bikes,” he wrote. “They put them in the basement and never touch them for the entire winter.” He noted, for example, that Franceso Moser would always put on a bit of extra weight at this time. When Moser trained through the winter for the 1984 season, LeMond noted that the difference in his fitness level was ‘remarkable’. Moser won Milan San-Remo that year, and the Giro (with a little help from the organizers), and set a new record for the hour.

But still, Moser’s palmar├Ęs were pretty impressive before 1984 (and he did have a certain extra assistance from one Francesco Conconi for his hour record) including four points jerseys in the Giro, three consecutive Paris-Roubaix victories, and a World Championship win. Two months off the bike did Moser no harm, and who wouldn’t like to hang up their wheels while other pursuits and family time beckons over the festive season?

A new season the French way

The main fear for cyclists in the off season is weight gain. This can always be contained with a due sense of moderation, as well as some alternative exercise while the bike is dans le sous-sol. But what to do if the pounds do go on, before spring training starts?

In his new book on Jacques Anquetil, Paul Howard notes that during his time in military service in 1956, Anquetil gained a massive 22 pounds! It required one month and 1,200 kilometres for him to get back into shape. Anquetil favoured intensity in his training: 2 to 2.5 hours of motor pacing behind a car or derny was his preferred method. (One cannot but wonder as to the strain on the body of losing so much weight in such a short time, but Anquetil was well-known for his powers of recuperation).

Anq 3
Get slim like Jacques, wear yellow.

A Belgian spring

Eddy Merckx said so famously for training advice: “Ride, lots.” Merckx represented perfectly the tension in cycling between training philosophies, less-is-more versus more-is-more. The Pelissier brothers in the 1920s had extolled the virtues of more directed training and Anquetil, as noted, had trained harder but for less time – a harder-is-more philosophy rather than the long, long rides favoured by others.

Merckx was not alone and many of his contemporaries put in extraordinary distances for training. Roger De Vlaeminck would famously meet up with Walter Godefroot for long training rides, but having already gotten up hours early to put in 100-odd kilometres. He simply rode more than everyone else, including 400 kilometre rides as part of his training for Paris-Roubaix. “It was important for me to know that I was doing more than the others,” he was quoted saying.

The Belgian approach in the spring, therefore, is not to be afraid to put in the miles.

Rik 1
Get Van Steenbergen tough with a Belgian spring.

The other facet of the Belgian spring program is racing. The well-known adage is: “Race to train.” There’s no better way to work on intensity than racing. Forcing oneself to sprint solo for street signs is no substitute for sprinting against the pack for a $5 prime. Basically, you’ll always try harder in the latter scenario – even if it’s for just enough to cover a couple of espressos. The competitive urge always kicks in.

“I got to race so much that I didn’t feel the need to do long training,” Joe Parkin writes in his book, referring to the numerous kermis races he did in Belgium.

In his book on Anquetil, Howard quotes Brian Robinson, who talks about the training of Rik Van Steenbergen, ‘the man of stone’, a classic Belgian hard man who won races too numerous to list, including three World Championships and Paris-Roubaix twice. Robinson was still doing over 200 days of racing in his time and said of Steenbergen: “[He] never trained, he just raced. There’s a race every day in Belgium, so he’d do his training in a race.”

So find those spring races and use them to get in shape for the rest of the season. When it comes time to hit the hills, the early-season intensity will have paid off. Spring racing is also a great motivator; when it’s pouring down with freezing rain, one can have consoling thoughts of hot chocolate waiting at the finish line (remind your race support crew to bring a thermos!) and the realization that the weather can only get better.

Recover the Canadian way

The latest issue of Bicycling magazine recommends hot chocolate, incidentally, as an excellent post-exercise recovery drink. But why wait for after the ride? Le grimpeur suggests filling a standard plastic model with a hot brew and it’ll stay warm enough at least for a while. (A recent experiment with hot tea and orange juice is only recommended for those with strong constitutions.)

But there are even better alternatives to hot chocolate for a recovery drink. This blog has already commented on two appropriate choices, but that was before the discovery of the fine brew pictured below. In seems that Phillips Beer has no connection to the team formerly named Slipstream, but this cream ale perfectly captures the spirit of traditional training. Take a hot shower after a cold ride to warm up, then enjoy this tasty drop. Recommended!

Cream Ale
Is this the perfect recovery drink?

One thought on “Old-school winter training, the European way

  1. Fascinating outlay. I often wonder how well riders of yesteryear would have done if they would have applied our modern training regiments…better yet, where will training science take us in the next fifty years?

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