Intervals and racing to train

C’est tout! The Tour is over for another year, with many fine performances and much to write about. While the numbers are being crunched and the VAM rates analyzed, a response to some reader feedback.

A recent commenter asked whether your author had any recommended intervals for climbing faster. Simply put, I would recommend anything by Chris Carmichael or Joe Friel.

As regular readers will know, however, le grimpeur is a fan of what might loosely be called old school training. What this means is that any type of routine that involves, for example, “repeat 6 times”, or “x minutes at x% of threshold” is out. It’s a fair guess that Sean Kelly didn’t know what his ‘threshold’ was, except that it was probably measured in terms of suffering and a good deal higher than yours or mine.

Being an exponent of the old school is also an excuse to avoid those super-intense intervals, which just seem to get harder and harder. But then that is, of course, the idea. Jonathan Vaughters is the perfect example of a rider/coach/manager with his legs astride the old and the new school. Drawing on the old school, he gave the following advice to NY Times blogger Rob Mackie last year:

“Climbing mountains on a bike is not fun. So, to do it properly, you need to accept this fact and get on with it. I see so many people looking for that secret technique or training method that will make climbing painless and suffer-free. This will never happen. Training and techniques will make you suffer slightly faster up hills, not suffer any less. Climbing is painful, period. The sooner you just accept that and stop looking for ways around it, the better you will learn how to climb. Let the suffer-meter serve as your internal tachometer, letting you know how close to your limit you are. Accepting and really allowing yourself to feel that pain will make you a better rider. Trying to ignore it will distract you from the task at hand and make you ride slower.”

Vaughters also has a favourite new school interval workout. He calls it the On/Off Interval (other coaches have similar variations), which involves 10 seconds of maximum intensity followed by 20 seconds of easy spinning. For 10 minutes. As Vaughters wrote: “And eventually, you’ll throw up.”

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Sean Kelly logged plenty of miles and plenty of wins.

There is no doubt that high-intensity workouts and intervals will make you go faster. The principle is fairly basic. If you want to ride up your local hill faster, practice riding up it faster. Want to be able to close gaps or drop competitors in a hillclimb race? Practice those on/off intervals (and try not to puke).

But to be totally honest, any type of repeat effort soon gets tiresome. And, when training on the hillclimbs, sometimes there is no one around to make sure you don’t slack off, skip the last session, and head home for cold beer (the latter being a very popular option in the summer).

The best training advice for intervals, therefore, in your author’s humble experience, is: race to train. Your local mid-week crit series is the best place to put intensity into your legs. There is nothing like trying to chase down breakaways, or simply hold on to the back of a fast pack, to force you to work hard in a variety of tempo situations. No one wants to get dropped in a 30-minute crit and the added incentive for holding wheels will make you work harder.

And when the training starts to pay dividends, there are even cash prizes (in most cases) to be had. For some reason, winning back one’s entrance fee and enough coin to buy a spare tube is all the incentive most riders need to race hard enough so that their lungs threaten to explode out of their chests. Perhaps there is also the scent of glory, the enviable opportunity to raise a hand in a victory salute.

Racing to train is completely old school, the staple of the European scene. Solo hill repeats are one thing, but trying to hold off the chasing pack to snatch a $5 prime will make you a faster rider in any situation, whether on the flat or on the hills. Plus, racing teaches all sorts of other skills, such as close riding in a bunch and a host of race tactics. It will sharpen up your sprint no end, and a big sprint at the end of a long climb is exactly what we’re all aiming to achieve.

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Thomas Voeckler shows how to hold off the pack and complete the victory salute.

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