1. In early March, a rider turned up at the first of the local spring series races with 500 kilometres in his legs since the start of the year (later to find out that many others had 4-5 times the distance in theirs) and self-seeded into the C group for cat.4s and other slackers. These races, billed as ‘training races’, are usually fast and furious despite being early in the year. After a cold and wet winter, many racers – whether they be young guns on their way up or older racers just trying to stay in the game – are raring to go with pent up energy. They want to put the hammer down.
And on the rolling course they did just that. The C field was nearly 70 riders and the pace on the first two laps immediately started to thin out. The relentless selection continued and the front group of around 20 riders soon had a yawning chasm of a gap over anyone else. Slated for around 50 kms, the race was closer to 70 and after the first distance was reached this rider drifted off the back, the elastic well and truly snapped. After an initial futile chase he let the 15 or so riders in front of him go and rode out the rest of the race alone. Vicious cramping set in – not just in the calves, the first to go – but soon in the hamstrings and, unusually, the quads. And in the latter, not just a tiredness and soreness typical of hard riding but a twisting and knotting and binding that threatened to immobilize them altogether.
At the finish, this rider limped back to his car, consumed all the food and beverages he could find therein, and drove home and
had a bath and a bourbon took his family to the park. The Strava metrics told the story: 72 kilometres, 875 metres of climbing, 2,059 calories, 32.4 km/h, and a ‘suffer score’ of 167 – rated ‘extreme’ – with over an hour, about half the ride, spent in the anaerobic threshold zone. Six weeks later, his proximal hamstring on his left leg was still gripped by a dull ache.
This story, dear reader, is not to brag as one can be sure that you have ridden harder for longer and at a faster pace. It serves as an example of the general truism in cycling (and perhaps any sport) that at some point you have to do some ridiculously hard training if you want to achieve a particular goal. Every rider flirts with the idea of taking on an extra challenge during the season – riding a really long ride, mixing it up in the local road races and crits, or beating a personal TT record. We are restless and, for whatever reason, want to push ourselves that little bit more. And to get there we have to hurt ourselves – overload and recovery, as they say – so that we can reach those goals.
To go long you need to ride longer rides. To go faster you need to ride faster in training and this typically involves some form of interval training. Every system has its own variations and certain approaches are in vogue at present – such as the Tabata protocol that involves 20 seconds of sprinting followed by 10 seconds of rest, repeated 8 times. Jonathan Vaughters has his own variation of this that flips it for 10 seconds of sprinting followed by 20 seconds of tempo over a 10 minute period. He suggests that it might not work for all cyclists simply because it is too hard, “…eventually, you’ll throw up.” Intervals are all very well in theory, but completing them to the letter is a challenge. As they say of amateurs, their main challenge is to go hard enough on hard days and soft enough on recovery days. Most of us ride somewhere in between all the time.
Vaughters has some other ridiculously hard training methods, such as riding at anaerobic threshold for an hour on day 2, following a intense ride on day 1, having not eaten anything for breakfast, thus teaching your body to burn fat at high intensities. “It’s excruciating.” Or, against all good advice, he suggests doing intervals two days in a row. One of your author’s favourites is the method Bob Roll suggests before a big event (although your author has yet to try it). Bobke suggests the following: every day for 2 weeks, wake up and eat 1 bowl of cereal, ride 100 miles, drink a shot of whiskey and a pint of Guinness, nap until 8pm, eat a cheeseburger, sleep all night. Then, a day before the event, take the day off and eat everything in the house. At the race, “you will be flying” but will have to take a month off afterwards to recover.
And there’s the rub. The most difficult aspect of ridiculously hard training might actually be the recovery. Sure, those of us who sit at desks most of the day most of the week have plenty of time to rest up. Or do we? Life has a way of getting in the way of recovery, dragging tired legs from chore to chore, trying to get enough sleep with a busy work and family routine. It can be difficult to make it happen, and that can lead to falling motivation and lack of commitment. Who needs that hill climb record anyway?
Perhaps it all comes back to what we want from the bike and just how far we want to take it. What motivates us to push ourselves that little bit more? What is behind that drive that sees us poring over google maps to link up stupidly steep climbs into a soul-crushing hill climb interval ride, or flogging ourselves in the big ring up a slope that should be tackled at a nice and easy cadence? Sometimes, the incentive to ride longer or faster makes us consider training ridiculously hard. Sometimes, it feels like the right thing to be doing.
Your author has already noted his obsession with beating his record time for the local Mt. Seymour climb and is gradually working towards this goal. As an aside, somewhat interestingly, he has yet to beat his best times on his training climbs that he set at the end of the season last year on his ‘winter’ bike – steel framed, 20lbs+, slack angles, 9-speed 105, 32-spoke wheels – thus offering a tentative proof that it is much less about the bike than you think. He has found some more tough climbs to work on, but has yet to get his ‘suffer score’ to extreme again, even in subsequent racing.
And so onto the giveaway. If you want to get started on some serious training but are not quite sure how to go about it, or want more of a systematic approach to the training you already do, you may be interested in Chris Carmichael’s system for the time-crunched cyclist. This is the second edition of the book from VeloPress and is packed full of detailed training plans for going faster and longer and whatever it is you need. This is a review copy and you, dear reader, can ‘win’ it for your own personal use. Just email guy[at]le-grimpeur[dot]net with your own favourite interval, hill climb route, Strava ride of extreme suffering, or a cool story about ridiculously hard training. In a few weeks the winner will be selected (somewhat objectively) and the best tips/stories published right here. The book will be sent to you – anywhere in the world – courtesy of your author. If Carmichael is not to your liking there are some other awesome books that you may prefer – if you win.
Your author is not a big believer in the mantra of cycling, glory through suffering, and will hopefully explore some ideas around this in subsequent blog posts. There is a new translation of Roland Barthes’ ‘Mythologies’ out now that restores all the author’s columns into one book (including his piece on the Tour de France, previously excluded from the English edition and also with a more accurate translation) and it seems like a good opportunity to revisit his ideas. As well, the long-awaited entry on cycling as a religion is (slowly) taking shape. In the interim, the hills are beckoning. Sans gloire.