To win a race. Whichever race that may be, this is often considered an elusive goal amongst cyclists. Most of us aren’t ambitious enough to put ourselves on the line and put ourselves out there and call it. There is no reason you shouldn’t aim high; whatever the target race is, it is important to understand what it takes to reach the top step. There is a big difference between running a top 5, and actually winning a race.
One of the biggest things I have learnt spending time racing is that races are never clean cut. What happens when things go wrong? When Plan A doesn’t eventuate and you need to resort to Plan B or C. Or maybe there is no fall back plan. Sometimes races are won with split second decisions that are more often than not made on instinct, rather than calculating variables.
Many younger athletes i see are top-heavy; meaning that their ability to execute a once-off, all-out effort is far beyond their capacity to repeat this effort numerous times. This is where most athletes come up short. Often races are not won by a single all-out effort; there are usually several minutes or hours of pre-load that occur before the max effort. This is what sets the top level athletes apart from the rest; the stronger riders are those that are able to back up effort after effort.
We see it on TV all the time, Greg Van Avermaet crashing with 90km to go in Paris Roubaix, Robbie McEwan puncturing with 10km to go in stage 1 of the 2007 Tour de France, Stannard racing 3 to 1 against Team Quickstep, the world’s best athletes get back on their bikes and get the job done. Great athletes are the ones that can perform when things don’t go to plan. This list is endless; punctures, crashes; gut problems; even going as far as rough transfers or less than ideal travel schedules. Often things that are out of the athlete’s control, but factors that have an impact nonetheless. As the athlete, it is your responsibility to be prepared for these things and to adapt to be able to perform regardless. Can you pull that rabbit out of the hat when the odds are against you? Have you created a training environment that supports this adaptability? What experiences can you call upon (both first hand and from observation) for when the race throws something new at you?
There are 2 big things that I believe are the first steps to building a world class athlete.
1) A big flip book of tactics. Have you ever wondered how Cameron Meyer is the best points score rider in the world? It's because he has the biggest flip book of tactics. It's because he has sat down and watched every race video from every International level points score since 1998. He knows the riders, the flow of the bunch, the stalls, the attacks, the counter attacks, so when something goes wrong, and we see this in American football, you switch plan, you open the next page in the play book and without breaking a sweat you execute a pre formed plan to neutralise a tactic you have seen hundreds of times before. Brilliance never happens on the day, it’s built over countless hours of preparation.
2) Physical training for when things go wrong. If you have a big race coming up, you should be scared. If the upcoming event is going to be your new hardest ride, you will struggle. You need to train above and beyond the requirements of the race, because unlike GVA and McEwan, if you are already on the limit and something bad happens, you wont have the depth to fix it. To make race winning moves in the closing kilometres you must have legs to stand on. If you are struggling to finish you will have no chance at winning. This season when Greg Van Avermaet won Roubaix he had also won E3, Gent–Wevelgem and 2nd in the Tour of Flanders within a total of 9 days. Most of the field only started 1 or 2 of these epic races that week, let alone finished, let alone won them. The race distance and conditions need to become your new normal if you want to step up and deliver at the right time. How can you be prepared to win if you don't know what it feels like to race with this much fatigue? How can you win if you don't make it to the finish? The only way to improve is to train for the day everything goes wrong.
Training – how to train for when it matters
The best way to train for the above scenarios is by using pre-loaded efforts. Pre-loaded what (?) I hear you say. All this means is replicating the accumulated fatigue that is experienced in races, before the finish, in your training. Whether this means using a 20 minute blow-out before you start your Vo2 Max set or punching out a 2-3h solid endurance ride before your normal interval session; a pre-load is important to simulate race conditions. By now you are probably (hopefully) reflecting on one of your own race experiences; given you are racing in the correct grade, it is unlikely that the first attack of the day will be the attack that sticks, or the one that puts you into trouble. What is more important, is being able to follow the last attack of the day; the move that the other 98 percent of the field are unable to follow. This is a skill you must train for.
For example, it's important to note that races in Australia that are under 130km should be raced from the front. It is imperative that to race at the top level of the Australian National Road Series you need to ride position and not be afraid to sit in the wind. You are less likely to crash, or miss a split if you are sitting near the front. Consistency is key. Riding from the front is harder but there are really only two ways to achieve success on race days – save your energy by waiting for the perfect moment; a skill that requires a massive amount of luck and/or race craft; or by having the ability to hedge your bets by holding good position, staying out of trouble and following the right moves, something you can only achieve by staying near the front.
One of the foundation training sessions I use to improve my ability to do this is to consistently achieve 2-3 hour tempo sets at 75-80 percent max HR in training. If one of my basic training sets is 3hrs tempo, come race day it's quite refreshing to know that with a short taper and race wheels, the distance and load from the effort is going to be the least of my worries and I can focus on teamwork and race tactics.
Some basic reminders about training – how to go about it and maximise potential.
Pick your training days. What is my session goal and how does it fit into the bigger picture? What is the actual point of my training session? Without nailing these fundamentals, you won’t be able to plan accordingly, manage load, or monitor progress.
Training takes time. If you are racing to win every Sunday you are doing it wrong. In order to reach a new level of fitness you need to complete training that suppresses current performance. This is more commonly known as progressive overload. It is in the rebound that you take the next step. Don’t stress if you are training hard but performances don’t present themselves overnight. The training is not lost; ‘something’ happened; work was done, changes were made and there was residual fatigue. Your individual rebound-rate will be different from your fellow athletes and the work completed may even take several months to show itself. This is where it is important to be patient. More often than not, we compare ourselves to others; looking for that quick-fix overnight solution, or miracle training set that will give us the gains we have been chasing for months. Panic training won’t get you the results you are after. Consistency will.
Work on your mental resilience and pick training days where you will break through a barrier. Visualise the biggest race on your calendar and make efforts in training that will replicate what you will need on the day, right down to the emotional level where you decide to give in, but make one more interval. Then rest. A breakthrough doesn't mean you are now stronger, it means you have done more damage. Enjoy the breakthrough and let the work sink in.
It takes years to build the engine to produce the racing consistency of McEwan, Van Avermaet or Stannard but to do that you need to focus on the long term plan, to read the races, build your tactics flipbook, and allocate training days focused on making efforts when you are tired. Set aside days where you can achieve personal breakthroughs and take a step further than you thought you could. Physical limits start in our mind and if you can conquer that battleground you will start to achieve more.