Making Endurance Great Again

“In the midst of an ordinary training day, I try to remind myself that I’m preparing for the extraordinary”

-          Shalene Flanagan, American 3000m, 5000m and 15k record holder, Olympic medalist, NYC Marathon winner

Shalene Flanagan winning the NYC Marathon in 2017. This was the first time an American woman had won the race in 40 years.

Shalene Flanagan winning the NYC Marathon in 2017. This was the first time an American woman had won the race in 40 years.

Cycling, though unique in many ways, is an endurance sport. Good old endurance rides, though not as “sexy” as a lot of other workouts are (or at least should be) the backbone of any cyclist’s training plan. Advocates of a polarized training approach recommend spending about 80% of rides or 90% of training volume at relatively low intensity (i.e. recovery and endurance). Unfortunately, many riders treat these rides more like “filler” workouts than giving them the respect they deserve. There are many reasons for this; some find endurance rides boring, some find them difficult to complete when it’s dark, cold, wet or snowy outdoors. Many athletes, when pressed for time, prioritize their high intensity workouts. Some choose to complete their endurance rides with a group, only to get sucked into prolonged, but unstructured periods of high intensity as well as long periods of coasting and soft-pedaling, resulting in workouts that take a lot of time but are limited in their training value. Others, even when riding by themselves, either lack the discipline to keep their intensity low or have a “no pain, no gain” attitude towards training, leading them to ride moderately hard all the time and ultimately, not hard enough on their hard days.

In previous articles, I’ve explained the importance of endurance rides and how to complete them properly. I’m not going to rehash all of that again here, but as a reminder, the 2 most important rules for endurance rides are 1. Keep your heart rate in zones 1 and 2 (under 83% of threshold HR or about 75% of max HR) and 2. Minimize coasting time. These are simple rules, but I am continually surprised at how difficult it seems to be for so many athletes to execute them properly. The following is a list of ways that athletes can add value to their endurance and recovery rides, make them more enjoyable and easier to accomplish properly, given the real world constraints we all face:

1.       Mix up the cadence. Most cycling events require power and efficiency at a range of cadences. While this range may be much tighter in flat time trials than in Criteriums and Cyclocross races, most riders can benefit from widening their “cadence comfort zone”. Making a conscious effort to increase cadence at least one gear above where you would normally ride will benefit pedaling efficiency. If you’re riding indoors using a VR program such as Zwift, it can be helpful to ride a rolling or hilly course that forces you to shift and ride at a wider range of rpm, even when your power remains relatively constant. Even those riding “dumb trainers” should consider changing up their cadence every 5 minutes (e.g. 5 min at 85 rpm, 5 min at 90 rpm, 5 min @ 95 rpm, 5 min @ 100 rpm…). In addition to expanding your range of efficiency, changing things up every few minutes also serves to make these indoor rides less mind-numbingly boring. Some riders might consider riding a fixed gear bike outdoors over rolling terrain, which will improve muscular strength on the uphills, leg speed and efficiency on the downhills and as a side benefit, keep your primary bike clean.

VR apps such as Zwift can make indoor riding a lot less boring, but most riders should still reduce their volume if riding endurance rides indoors. It’s also important not to get sucked into the competitive aspect if the goal is Endurance. Save the intensity for your hard days!

VR apps such as Zwift can make indoor riding a lot less boring, but most riders should still reduce their volume if riding endurance rides indoors. It’s also important not to get sucked into the competitive aspect if the goal is Endurance. Save the intensity for your hard days!

2.       Cut the volume down when riding indoors. I don’t know about you, but a 3 hour outdoor endurance ride is something I usually look forward to. A 3 hour indoor endurance ride, on the other hand, is something I usually dread. Hence, there is “The 2/3 rule”, which basically states that you can cut out 1/3 of the volume if you’re riding indoors because there is little or no coasting or stopping. In an age when most serious cyclists are using power meters, we now have actual data to back this up. When planning workouts, I assume an intensity factor (IF) of 0.60 when riding endurance outdoors, which means that a 3 hour endurance ride would produce a Training Stress Score (TSS) of 108. Indoors however, I’ve found that most riders will maintain an IF closer to 0.70, which means that they will rack up a TSS of 108 in just over 2 hours (2 hours and 11 minutes to be exact). With that said, I still prefer for riders to complete endurance rides outdoors when possible, I just know that in the real world it is not always possible, be it due to daylight, weather, or road/trail conditions.

3.       Mix up the modality. For example, if it’s cold outside you could spend the first half of your ride outdoors and the second half indoors. If there’s snow and/or ice on the roads and outdoor riding is unsafe you could spend the first half skiing or snow-shoeing and the second half on the bike. If you’re getting bored with your fixed wheel indoor trainer, you could spend the first half of the ride on the trainer and the second half on the rollers (which will have the added benefit of improving balance and concentration).

Including rollers in your indoor training regimen can help with leg speed, balance and concentration. If you’re Eddy Merckx, it might also be a the perfect time to have a talk with your daughter…

Including rollers in your indoor training regimen can help with leg speed, balance and concentration. If you’re Eddy Merckx, it might also be a the perfect time to have a talk with your daughter…

4.       Slow it down. One of the worst parts of riding outside on a bitterly cold day is the “wind chill”. 20 degrees might not feel too bad at first if you’re properly dressed, but riding down a descent at 40 mph when it’s 20 degrees can chill you to the bone. Though most of us are used to looking for ways we can ride faster, it may be helpful on those cold days to have the opposite mentality. One way to do that is to ride a mountain bike, cyclocross bike or fat bike in the woods. Your speed will be lower and the trees can give you some added shelter from the wind. If you still want to ride on the road, consider outfitting your bike with fenders, thorn proof tubes and thick tires. It may feel like you’re riding in wet cement but the wind won’t be as bothersome (and you’re less likely to have to change a flat tire on a cold day). Many opt to ride a separate “winter bike”, which will save the primary bike from being subjected to the harsh winter conditions. Note: it’s important to be properly fitted on each of your bikes by a professional fitter. Even if you carefully match saddle height, setback, reach and drop, the fit will be slightly different.

5.       Work on “body management”. When examining workout files from endurance rides, a couple metrics I look at are Efficiency Factor (EF) and Pw:HR. EF is simply Normalized Power/Average Heart Rate and Pw: HR compares EF in the first half of the ride to EF in the second half of the ride. An athlete who is fit, efficient and does a good job of body management (i.e. eating, drinking, staying relaxed, staying cool, avoiding excessive muscular fatigue, etc.) will have a lower Pw:HR. Conversely, athletes who are inefficient, fail to consume adequate fluid and Calories, waste a lot of energy or overheat during a ride will have a high degree of aerobic decoupling, meaning that they will see their heart rate drift higher and higher even at a consistent power output OR see their power drift downward even at a consistent heart rate. Overall, EF and Pw:HR on endurance rides should go down as you get more fit and efficient, but these improvements are equally about body management. To use a car metaphor, even if you drive a Ferrari, you have to change the oil, change the tires and put gas in the tank.

Endurance rides are a good time to work on cornering, descending and other skills, but you should practice the skills that are in line with your level of ability and confidence

Endurance rides are a good time to work on cornering, descending and other skills, but you should practice the skills that are in line with your level of ability and confidence

6.       Work on your bike handling skills. Low intensity rides are perhaps the best time to work on the bike handling skills that many riders neglect. Try riding with your hands off the bars. Try taking an energy bar out of your back pocket and unwrapping it while riding. Try removing your vest, gloves, booties or leg warmers, putting them in your back pocket, and putting them back on while riding. To be clear, riders should practice skills that match their experience and ability. Safety should be the first priority. For example, beginner riders might want to practice riding out of the saddle comfortably on the uphills before they graduate to removing their base layer on a descent or cooking an omelet on the rollers. When cornering and descending, all riders should practice choosing lines, weighting their outside leg, sighting the turn and other cornering techniques. If you’re riding off road, there are limitless possibilities for skill work and because endurance rides will be done at lower speeds, you won’t have the added momentum that can sometimes make up for poor technique.

7.       Work on your pedaling efficiency. I mentioned increasing cadence in order to improve mechanical efficiency in #1, but even when you’re not doing anything specific to work on your pedaling efficiency, simple awareness may help. If you’re riding with a dual-sided power meter, it could be a good time to check your L/R power split and try to ride as close as possible to 50/50 (note: this is particularly important for riders with significant leg length or strength discrepancies). Some power meters are also capable of producing real-time efficiency metrics such as pedal smoothness, torque effectiveness, power phase and platform center offset. If you feel pretty confident about your efficiency metrics under normal conditions, there are a few “handicaps” you can give yourself, such as riding in the drops or aero bars. Doing so can help you improve flexibility, hip flexor and core strength as well as get you more comfortable riding in the positions that you will eventually have to race in.

8.       Try depletion rides. Though it would be wrong to suppose that a 1 or 2 hour endurance ride isn’t even worth doing, most riders will spend the first 15-30 minutes of their ride burning a high percentage of muscle glycogen, which means that most of the gains in metabolic efficiency (i.e. burning a higher percentage of fat) will come later in the ride. There is however, a way to “shortcut” this process by beginning the ride with depleted glycogen stores. Typically this is done by riding first thing in the morning (i.e. before breakfast), but it can also be done in the late afternoon or early evening when you haven’t eaten in 6+ hours. A word of warning though: depletion rides can be a lot more painful than regular endurance rides and depletion rides over 2 hours long are not recommended except for elite and professional cyclists.

You have to get to work one way of another. Why not use it as training?

You have to get to work one way of another. Why not use it as training?

9.       Commute. If you are able to ride your bike to and from work, it’s a relatively easy way to tack on some extra miles. Most commuters will have a tough time working in structured intervals during their commutes, but riding recovery and endurance rides is usually possible. A 45-90 minute commute may not seem like it’s that long, but if you multiply by 2 times a day and 5 days a week, you’ve already got yourself 7.5-15 hours per week! Some riders may wish to do depletion rides (see above) on certain days by eating breakfast after they arrive at work and refraining from eating in the afternoon until they arrive at home. If you do rely on commutes as your main source of endurance time however, make sure that you choose safe routes that minimize coasting and soft-pedaling time and allow yourself adequate time to get to work and get cleaned up so you don’t end up having to go harder than you wanted just so you can make it there on time. Finally, make sure you have another form of transportation available in case it’s unsafe to ride or you just plain need a day off.

10.   Listen to podcasts and audiobooks. OK, I always feel like I need to have a legal disclaimer with this one so before I go any further, I will say that I do not recommend riding with headphones if it is illegal in your state/city/township or if you just don’t feel safe doing so. In other words, ride with headphones at your own risk. That said, if you are OK with it, listening to a good book or podcast can make a long endurance ride a LOT less boring and on top of that you will be educating your mind and training your body at the same time. Personally, I like to listen to music during harder training sessions but on those long endurance days, I love nothing more than listening to a good book or podcast. As someone who never seems to find time to read as much as I’d like, this has been life-changing, though admittedly some books are better to listen to than others on rides (pro tip: think Stephen King, not James Joyce) By the way, this blog is brought to you by Audible (just kidding, but Audible… if you’re out there, call me!)

On a final note, I want to loop back to the beginning and remind readers that these are tips to help make your endurance rides more achievable, valuable and fun, but it needs to be said that they can also be misconstrued in ways that actually lead to lower-quality endurance rides (which more often than not means riding too hard). If you increase your cadence, make sure that your heart rate remains low even if you have to ride at a lower power. If you cut your volume down indoors, it doesn’t mean you should bring the intensity up. Increases in IF will occur because there is less time stopped or soft pedaling, not because the actual riding intensity is higher. If you supplement your endurance work with cross training, it is true that heart rate zones can be different in different sports, but if the goal is endurance, keep it at endurance HR. If you decide to ride on a mountain bike, fat bike or cross bike in the winter, it’s understandable that the terrain might include a few more power spikes but it’s important to select routes that don’t require prolonged periods of high intensity just to stay on the bike. Lastly, although you may feel less hungry on a long endurance ride than a long high-intensity ride, you still need to eat and drink. If you’re looking to lose weight, do it through consistent training and incremental and sustainable modifications to your off-the-bike nutrition.

Simply put, whatever methods and tricks you use to get through your endurance rides, know the difference between endurance and “endurance”. One is the foundation of your fitness and the key to sustainable improvement. The other is just gets in the way of making long term gains… what’s the word I’m looking for? Oh yeah, junk. That’s it.

Colin Sandberg is the owner and head coach of Backbone Performance, LLC. He is a Cat. 1 road racer, a USA Cycling Level II coach and a UCI Director Sportif. If you have questions or comments, feel free to use the comments section or email us. Thanks for reading!

How to wash your bike

I was just going through the files on my computer and I realized that I had this video on bike cleaning that my intern, Zach Houlik helped me make last summer. This is an instructional video on basic bike cleaning, not an extreme bike cleaning/rebuild that may be necessary if your bike if you were riding in severe conditions. 

 

Required Tools

- Garden hose

- Bucket of soapy water

- Sponge

- Bike cleaning brushes

- Degreaser 

- Clean rag for drying bike

- Dirty rag for cleaning drivetrain parts

- Chain lube

 

Optional (but recommended) Tools

- Workstand

- Apron

- Chain cleaner

- Goof Off

 

 

Note: at the end of the video I say "Don't use WD40 to lube your bike" and I need to add a disclaimer. I was referring to basic WD40, not the excellent line of bike cleaning products that WD40 now makes. 

If you have any questions or comments, please let me know. 

Colin Sandberg is the owner and head coach of Backbone Performance, LLC. He is a Cat. 1 road  racer, a USA Cycling Level II coach and a UCI Director Sportif. He is also head  coach at Young Medalists High Performance and race director for Team Young Medalists. If you have questions or comments, feel free to use the comments section or email us. Thanks for reading!

Monday Morning Quarterbacking: Omloop Het Nieuwsblad

It it were a few years ago, I would have been out riding in the 15 degree weather last Saturday. A few years older now, I instead was sitting indoors, sipping my coffee and watching Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in the comfort of my living room with my 3 month old daughter on my lap. I am glad I did, and not just because I was able to stay warm and comfortable. I also got to witness live the race finish that everyone is is still talking about on Monday morning. 

Watching the bike race with my daughter. After the race, she told me "Man, even I know that Etixx screwed that one up, and I'm only 3 months old!"

Watching the bike race with my daughter. After the race, she told me "Man, even I know that Etixx screwed that one up, and I'm only 3 months old!"

With 40 kilometers left to go in the race, Etixx-QuickStep had put Niki Terpstra, Tom Boonen and Stijn Vandenbergh in a 4 man breakaway with Team Sky's Ian Stannard. With 3 out of 4 in the winning move, victory seemed certain for Patrick Lefevre's team, it was only a matter of how and by how much. The situation seemed very similar to the famous 2001 Paris Roubaix where the Domo-Farm Frites team (also managed by Lefevre) finished 1-2-3 and destroyed what would be George Hincapie's best ever chance at victory in that race and coined the term "Domo-Nation". Ironically, Servais Knaven, the winner that year, now works for Team Sky. I was also reminded of US Postal's director Johan Bruyneel saying after the race, "When it's 3 on 1, you lose. Every time."

What played out in the last 5 kilometers was the perfect storm of tactical mistakes, bad luck and less than peak fitness on the part of the Etixx team and brilliance on the part of Stannard. At 4.7k to go, Etixx forced Stannard, who had been sitting on, to finally take a pull. As soon as he did, Boonen, who had skipped a few pulls in order to rest up, put in a massive attack. This is team tactics 101. When you have 3 on 1, one guy attacks, you force the other guy to chase... if he brings it back the next guy attacks... you force the odd man out to chase again... rinse & repeat until you have one guy off the front. At this point, you can still force the other guy to pull since you have a man off the front. When he is worn down enough you can attack again, putting a second guy off the front. Now it's 1 on 1 but with 2 guys off the front you can still force the other guy to pull and tire himself out enough for you to either beat him in a sprint or attack again. If everything plays out as it should, your team should finish 1-2-3. 

Unfortunately for Etixx, it didn't play out exactly like that. Here's a timeline of what happened:

4.6k to go: Boonen attacks. Stannard is at the front after having just taken a pull. He puts his head down and chases Boonen.

3.4k to go: Stannard, with Terpstra and Vandenbergh in tow, reels Boonen back in. Immediately upon making contact, Terpstra attacks with Vandenbergh on his wheel. Stannard is again forced to chase (of course) but this time when he jumps, Boonen (after just having raced a kilo) is unable to hold Stannard's wheel and he has to dig deep to stay with him. 

3.0k to go: Stannard (with Boonen just behind him) re-connects with Terpstra and Vandenbergh.

2.9k to go: Stannard attacks the trio and opens up a gap. Vandenbergh gives it all he's got but the gap holds.

2.6k to go: Vandenbergh pulls off and then falls off the pace. Terpstra pulls through.

2.2k to go: Terpstra is able to reconnect with Stannard but he drops Boonen (who has been hanging on for dear life) in the process. At this point, it might be tempting to think that Etixx has completely lost their numerical advantage, but it's important to remember that Terpstra, with Boonen just behind him, has no obligation to pull through. Stannard continues to drive the pace until 250m to go. Boonen never falls more than a couple seconds behind.

275m to go: Terpstra opens up his sprint to the left, but with a slightly uphill finish and dead legs, he doesn't get much of a jump on Stannard.

50m to go: Terpstra, in seeing that Stannard is still on his right hip, swings to the right to try and force him to come around on the left. Of course, he can't take him all the way into the barriers without being relegated. Stannard has room to come around just in time to take his second consecutive win in this race. 

(For a great 5 minute summary of the entire race, check out Cosmo Catalano's "How the Race was Won")

Most of the commentary I have seen has been pretty critical of the whole Etixx team, saying that they got cocky, and blinded by their desire to sweep the podium, they underestimated Stannard. While I don't believe that this criticism is wholly unwarranted, I do think that some of it is a bit harsh.

Let's examine the alternatives:

Alternative 1: Etixx should not have let Stannard sit on. The idea here is that the 3 Etixx riders should have forced Stannard to do his fair share of pulls in the break. On Stannard's part, it's probably a smart move to sit on as long as he can. He knew that Etixx would eventually start attacking and the odds were already stacked against him. If Etixx didn't like this, they could try to "ride him off the back". This means that the third rider in the group would let a gap open up and force Stannard to come around and close it. At this point, the 3rd rider would jump on Stannard's wheel and let him tow him back up. This tactic would most likely have either dropped Stannard (though probably at the expense of one of the Etixx riders) or at least forced him to concede to taking his pulls. Another tactic that could presumably have had the same effect would have been for Etixx to have started their attacks sooner in the race instead of waiting until the last 5k. 

Here is the problem: there was a group of riders just behind led by Sep VanMarcke (Lotto-Jumbo) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) with Phillipe Gilbert (BMC) stuck in no-mans-land. Although VanMarcke eventually finished a minute and a half behind, his group was hovering at 20-25 seconds for most of the last 40k. If Etixx had started trying to ride Stannard off the back, that gap could have easily evaporated. In a post-race interview, Lefevre defended his team's tactics, saying that VanMarcke was the strongest rider in the race and his team could not afford to play games. In fact, the only reason VanMarcke wasn't in the lead group was because he had flatted at the key moment of the race. Whether Lefevre was right about VanMarcke or he was simply making excuses for his team's disappointing result, one can't deny that the odds are much better with 3 out of 4 than 4 out of 8. 

Alternative 2: Etixx should not have gone on the attack at all. After the race, Boonen said that this would have been his team's best strategy. After all, he was the best sprinter in the group he should have been able to beat Stannard head to head. Boonen could have let his teammates drive the pace all the way to the line and then sprint with 150m to go. This was exactly what worked for Boonen when he won Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in 2014

Waiting for the sprint worked for Boonen in last year's KBK, but it was close.

Of course, the situation was quite different in last year's KBK. Yes, QuickStep had 5 out of 10 riders in the final breakaway, but the Belkin team also had 3. This means that they would most likely have been able to neutralize any QuickStep 1-2 attacks. Leading Boonen out was the only real option. Second, Moreno Hofland (Belkin) finished a very close second to Boonen in that race. It's always a gamble to let the race come down to a sprint. QuickStep got lucky that time but it would not have taken much for it to have gone the other way. Finally, it's worth noting that in that race, Boonen's teammates finished in 5th, 7th, 8th and 9th in the 10 man final group. To wait until the finish and then lead Boonen out for the sprint would have meant giving up all hope of sweeping the podium. Hindsight being 20/20, 1st, 3rd and 4th is a lot better than 2nd, 3rd and 4th, but you can't blame Lefevre for kicking his chops at the thought of another glorious sweep, can you?

Alternative 3: Terpstra or Vanderbergh should have attacked instead of Boonen. Perhaps one of them could have held off Stannard better than Boonen did, but even if they didn't, Boonen would have been fresh for the the sprint. 

Of all of the options, this one seems to me like it would have been the best, but you still run into some of the same problems. Both Terpstra and Vanderbergh had been working hard and were close to their limit. Most likely, Vanderbergh would not have been able to put in a serious attack, so it would have to have been Terpstra. Stannard was able to catch Terpstra when he counter-attacked Boonen's move, so in all likelihood he would have reeled in an earlier Terpstra attack as well, even if Terpstra had been a little fresher. If we assume that Vanderbergh was too tired to make a good attack, that again leaves Boonen. While Boonen vs. Stannard in the final sprint would have been a much better match for Etixx, there are no guarantees and if Boonen were a little tired, the race could still have gone to Stannard. 

The truth is that looking at the end of Saturday's race should teach us a few valuable lessons about racing:

1. It's a lot easier to "Monday morning quarterback it" than to have to make those decisions in the heat of the moment. It's important to realize that back in 2001, all the racers had radios. A clear headed director sportif sitting in his car with access to the exact time splits, would presumably have more chance of making the right call.  It's not so easy to do this when you are suffering, excited about the possibility of winning (and in this case, possibly sweeping the podium) and nervous about blowing it. After all, being the favorite carries a lot of weight with it. Now, these guys are all professionals., which means that they should be able to think (and act) under pressure. They wouldn't be where they are if they couldn't. In my opinion, the decisions that were made on the road weren't as bad as many of the critics in the cycling press (not to mention social media) would imply. They just turned out to be wrong.

2. No one could have anticipated how strong Stannard would be. It would be a mistake to focus only on the mistakes of the Etixx guys and not at all on how incredibly good Stannard was. Despite the fact that he was sitting on for most of the last 40k, he was able to pull back Boonen's attack, then pull back Terpstra's attack, then put in his own attack, then stay in the wind for almost 3k riding hard enough to hold off Boonen, then win the sprint. This is not even to mention that he had the clairvoyance to attack at the absolute perfect time.

I guess we probably should have known that Stannard was having a good day...

I guess we probably should have known that Stannard was having a good day...

3. Omloop is traditionally the first big race of the season in Belgium. While it's always interested to see who is riding well and who isn't, it doesn't really mean all that much in the long run. It is essentially a "tune-up" race. It's worth noting that no one has won Omloop and then one of the "Monument" races since Musseuw in 2000. In fact, the Etixx team redeemed itself the very next day with Cavendish's win at KBK. The lesson to be learned is that even the pros need to race with their teams a bit before they are able to operate as a well-oiled machine.

4. In my opinion, the biggest error for Etixx was simply that Terpstra started his sprint too early. If he had forced Stannard to start the sprint or at least waited longer, I think that he would have won and we wouldn't even be talking about this. The lesson: practice your sprints. It's only 10-20 seconds of the race, but it can end up be the most important 20 seconds. I advise my athletes to practice sprinting in different gears, starting from different speeds, on uphills, on downhills, by themselves, with one partner and with a large group. A sprint will very rarely be perfect but the more you practice, the more chance you have that it will be good enough. And as is often the case in life, good enough is all you need. 

 

Colin Sandberg is the owner and head coach of Backbone Performance, LLC. He is a Cat. 1 road  racer, a USA Cycling Level II coach and a UCI Director Sportif. He is also head  coach at Young Medalists High Performance and race director for Team Young Medalists. If you have questions or comments, feel free to use the comments section or email us. Thanks for reading!

Let the race come to you

The downside of good fitness is that it can lead to an over-inflated sense of control. Sometimes I feel like a broken record when I tell athletes "Don't force it. You can't impose your will on the race single-handedly. Keep your head up. Look for opportunities and do your best to take advantage of them." When we feel good we are excited to translate that fitness into results. Blinded by our own desire to succeed, we don't always pay attention to what is actually going on in the race. This is like an investor dumping all their money into stocks that they like without any regard to the movements of the market. Now, Warren Buffet or George Soros can probably dump millions of dollars into a stock and make it's value go up... but then again, they didn't get to be where they are by being reckless. 

Don't Force It

The peloton is like the ocean. A surfer doesn't know exactly when the next wave will come or how big it will be, but he knows that it will come. If he is patient and pays attention to the tide and the rhythms or the ocean, he will be able to time it right and ride the wave. Just like the ocean, the peloton has it's own rhythms. Hills, tight turns, attacks and riders pushing the pace cause the pack to string out. Non technical downhills, wide open flat roads and riders deciding to sit up have the opposite effect: the pack bunches up. No race stays strung out or bunched up forever. Riders that understand and predict the "waves" of the peloton can use it's energy to move up to the front when it's bunched up instead of fighting the tide and use much more energy to move up when the field is strung out . This principle can also be used to time attacks. Smart riders move up when it's bunched up and attack when it's strung out but just about to bunch up again. The result is that a small gap quickly turns into a large gap and by the the time the field picks up the pace again they are out of sight. Dumb riders attack when it's easy, which means that the field will catch them as soon as the pace picks up again. The first step to being a smart peloton surfer is realizing that the ocean is more powerful than you are.

You can't impose your will on the race single-handedly

A dominant team is different from a single rider or even a small team because the dominant team has a lot more bullets to fire. They can afford to sacrifice riders for the sake of imposing their will on a race and making sure that it plays out the way that they want it to. If they want a breakaway to work, they can sacrifice riders to make the initial attack(s) so that they can have their strongest rider(s) counter attack and get into the winning move. If they want the race to come down to a sprint, they can afford to sacrifice riders to chase down breakaways and lead out their sprinter. If they want to split up the field, they can sacrifice riders to drive the pace and keep it fast enough to rip apart the field. All too often, though, solo riders or small, less powerful teams try to implement these tactics and all of their hard work only serves to set other riders up. 

Rambo: not based on a true story

Rambo: not based on a true story

I am sure that some of you are thinking of times when you or someone you know did actually single-handedly dominate a race and impose their will on it, so let me say first of all: yes, there are exceptions. Most of those exceptions however, are when riders are far stronger than anyone else in their race (aka sandbagging). Most of the time though, even when a pro cyclist comes out to the Tuesday night training ride, they can't expect to just sit at the front and ride away from the field on strength alone even if they are twice as strong as the second strongest rider. It should be noted that for the most part when they do this, their intent is to get a good workout, not to "win". 

In last month's Tour de France, Vincenzo Nibali was head and shoulders stronger than all the other [surviving] contenders, yet many fans thought this year's edition of "Le Grand Boucle" was the most exciting in recent memory because it was so aggressive. Nibali did not have a dominant team in the likes of Froome and Wiggins' Team Sky that could keep the pace so high as to discourage any of these attacks. Although Nibali was left without any teammates by then end of most of the mountain stages, he patiently let the others put in their attacks, following the ones he needed to and letting his competitors tire themselves out. When at last they had nothing more to give, he would go his own, gaining time on almost every decisive stage. In other words, he didn't win by beating everyone into submission, he won by taking advantage of every opportunity. 

Keep your head up

The first thing my father ever taught me about riding a bike on the road was "Keep your head up", and to this day it's the best piece of advice I've ever received. He said this because he wanted me to recognize what was coming up ahead. If my head was down, looking at my front wheel, my bike computer or my legs, I might get caught off guard by a turn in the road, a pothole, a stop sign, a patch of gravel, a car, or any number of things. Keeping my head up allowed me to work out how I needed to react (if at all) well in advance. It also meant that I kept a straighter line and a smoother pedal stroke. 

You never know what can happen in a race so you better keep your head up

You never know what can happen in a race so you better keep your head up

When we start to suffer from a hard effort, when we get nervous about road conditions or sketchy riders or when we get demoralized because we feel like we're not performing well, many of us react by lowering our heads. Some riders with limited neck flexibility or back/shoulder issues may have a difficult time keeping their heads up as well In an age where many of us have speed, cadence, heart rate, power, altitude, gradient, temperature and GPS measurements available, I see more and more riders that have trouble looking away from their bike computers. The bottom line is this: if your head is down, you aren't part of the race. Not only can this be dangerous, it can also lead you to make decisions based on the wrong information. With regard to attacking, too many riders attack because they feel good. Smart riders attack when they see a good opportunity to do so and more often than not, it's when the race is hard (which means they probably don't feel good).

That's a lot of data

That's a lot of data

Keeping your head up is the also the first step in getting out of your own head. If you can do this, you stop worrying about how much your suffering or how nervous you are about crashing or under-performing. You just figure out what needs to be done and you do your best to make it happen. The other upside to this kind of mentality is that when you are not able to make it happen (which, to be honest, for most racers is most of the time), there's no mental anguish. It's a lot easier to accept when you fail because you asked your body to do something and it refused than because you just didn't know what you needed to do. You only have so much effort to give (so many matches to burn, bullets to fire, whatever metaphor you like best). The trick is to learn to focus your effort at the times it really matters. 

Look for opportunities and do your best to take advantage of them

Someone once told me that if you are in a breakaway and you have to go harder than everyone else in the break for it to survive, it's not the right break to be in. Those of us that are not field sprinters recognize that getting in the break is probably our only chance of winning. We may want so badly for the break to work that we are willing to work harder than anyone else in the break to ensure it's success. The thought of having to go back to the pack and either try to attack again or duke it out in a dangerous field sprint may seem unbearable. Here's the thing though: if we are working harder than everyone else in the break, we're not racing to win, we're racing for a top 5. 

"Never tell me the odds" - Han Solo

"Never tell me the odds" - Han Solo

This doesn't mean that if you think the race will probably end in a field sprint your only option is to sit and wait for a sprint, it just means that there may be fewer opportunities for breaks to get away, so you really have to pay attention to see them. It's also important to realize that "the odds" aren't everything. When you think about it, bike racing odds are almost never in your favor. In a field of 100 racers, there are 99 losers and only 1 winner. To be a bike racer is to never stop believing that you could be the 1 winner if you are smart and a little lucky, but also to have the ability to get over it when most of the time, you are in the 99. Being a smart racer isn't about choosing the strategy with the most likely odds of winning, it's about picking the strategy with the most likely odds of you winning.

 

Colin Sandberg is the owner and head coach of Backbone Performance, LLC. He is a Cat. 1 road  racer, a USA Cycling Level II coach and a UCI Director Sportif. He is also head  coach at Young Medalists High Performance and race director for  Team Young  Medalists. If you have questions or comments, feel free to use the comments section or email us. Thanks for reading!

10 things the pros don't want you to know

Cycling has a culture of secrecy. Most people aren't lucky enough to grow up with a network of parents and coaches that can help them learn the ropes of the sport, so they learn the hard way; often by trial and error. Unfortunately this culture often perpetuates itself. When inexperienced riders make mistakes they are often yelled at and made fun of or excluded rather than taught how to do things properly by the more experienced riders.

One of the reasons that I became a coach was to help change this culture. I want my sport to grow and thrive. I want cycling to be more welcoming and open, not more elitist and exclusionary. It took me a lot longer than it should have to learn the things I know now, so I want to help accelerate that process for new riders. Reading books, finding a good coach and asking for help from those that you respect can only take you so far. If you are really serious about getting to the next level, here are some things that you need to know that the pros won't tell you:

1. Slam that stem. Next time you watch a pro bike race, take a look at the bikes. How many spacers do you see under their stems? That's right, zero. When pro cyclists get their bikes each season, they are asked which size frame they ride and the team will order one size smaller. Busy pro mechanics don't have time to keep track of each rider's individual bike fit measurements, so they take out all the spacers under the stem and cut the fork. Done. Vertical drop from saddle to bars should always be at least 25 centimeters. If that's not easily possible, a stem with a steeper drop may be necessary. Some readers may ask "won't that make me uncomfortable?". The truth is, if you want to be comfortable, sit on your couch. The more your back hurts, the faster you get to the finish line.

A properly slammed stem

A properly slammed stem

2. Keep your head down. Aero is everything and human heads are not very aero. Much as we might like to, we can't simply cut them off. Wearing an aero helmet is always an option but usually the best thing to do is simply keep your head down at all times. Pro cyclists are taught to look down at their bottom brackets in order to keep their head out of the wind as much as possible. Those new to this method and concerned about safety may wish to install a pocket mirror in place of their front brake in order to view the road ahead.

David Millar demonstrates proper aerodynamic head placement

David Millar demonstrates proper aerodynamic head placement

3. Under-inflate your tires. By now, everyone should know not to inflate their tires to the maximum pressure limit. As I discussed in my article about tires, higher tire pressure can actually cause more rolling resistance. The real truth is, the softer the better. Most race tires can actually handle pressures 30-50 psi below their recommended minimum inflation guidelines. Lower tire pressure will result in a smoother, more comfortable ride and better surface contact between the tires and the road. Ideal tire pressure will vary depending on your weight, but the rule of thumb is to start at 50 psi and then ride over some potholes, a curb or a stretch of rough pavement just before your race. If you don't feel your rims bottoming out, let the pressure out until you do.

Example of a properly inflated tire

Example of a properly inflated tire

4. Wear clothes that are 2-3 sizes smaller than what's comfortable. I remember reading that when Pearl Izumi sponsored the Fassa Bortolo team, they had to create 5 additional sizes between small and extra small. Compare the average speeds of the pro peloton with that of a typical recreational group ride filled with middle aged men, all wearing extra large Primal Wear jerseys. I don't have to tell you which group is faster, and that is for one reason and one reason only. It's because pro cyclists know something those "reckies" don't: tighter is better. Tighter clothes will not only improve aerodynamics, they will help reduce the flow of "bad blood" to the extremities and make fat look more like muscle. Not to mention, if you're have trouble fitting into your cycling clothes, that's just another incentive to lose weight!

Example of properly fitting jersey but shorts that are too big

Example of properly fitting jersey but shorts that are too big

5. Get your bike lighter. With modern technology, most pro bikes weigh in at exactly the UCI minimum of 6.8 kilograms (~15 lbs). Unless you're doing UCI races though, you don't have to abide by this rule and you can go much much lower. Those who raced in the 70s and 80s remember a few old tricks such as drilling holes in their brake levers, chainrings and handlebars and not using bar tape. Another easy way to reduce unwanted weight is to remove the rear brake, which isn't really necessary anyway. If the race is relatively flat, you can remove your inner chain ring and front derailleur as well. Another trick of the trade that comes from the triathlon community is to simply not glue your tubulars, which can save you 50-100 additional grams of rotating weight.

This is how they rolled back in the 70s...

This is how they rolled back in the 70s...

6. No sex within 4 days of the race. It is claimed that testosterone levels are 10-20% higher in men who describe themselves as "extremely frustrated". In a 2006 study, men who had abstained for more than 3 days proved to be more aggressive and less risk-averse. It should be noted however that for women, abstinence will produce negative results. A study in 2008 showed that women who had abstained more than 3 days were overly aggressive and likely to engage in risky behaviors. (Note: this is why it's generally not a good idea for male bike racers to marry female bike racers).

Stay frustrated my friends

Stay frustrated my friends

7. Stop hydrating so much. For decades, so called "experts" have espoused the benefits of proper hydration for athletes. Have you ever noticed though that many of these studies are sponsored by the same people that are trying to sell you their hydration products? Do you really think that The Gatorade Sports Science Institute is giving you unbiased advice when they tell you that you should drink more Gatorade? Of course not. Leaving your bottles and cages at home on race day can lower your bike weight by as much as 4 pounds! Not to mention, you can lose as much as 5% of body mass in a single hour when riding on a really hot day. In the course of a 3-4 hour road race, a 160 pound rider could lose more than 20 pounds. Try getting those results with Jenny Craig!

For quick weight loss, leave the bottles home next time

For quick weight loss, leave the bottles home next time

8. Don't shower. An old but true cycling superstition is to never let water contact your skin before a race. Spanish rider Izidro Nozal famously refused to shower for the entire length of the Grand Tours he rode in. He claimed that showering would increase the risk of catching a cold, but the real reason was because it made it much more likely that his breakaway attempts would be successful. After all, who wants to be within 20 feet of the guy who hasn't bathed in 3 weeks?

Izidro Nozal looking a bit crusty, but in the leader's jersey at the 2003 Vuelta a España.

Izidro Nozal looking a bit crusty, but in the leader's jersey at the 2003 Vuelta a España.

9. 3 words: beer, waffles and frites. It's no accident that Belgium, a country of just over 11 million, has almost 120 riders in the pro peloton, far greater than their logical share. But cycling is the national sport of Belgium. Belgian children learn to race bikes before they learn to walk. Belgium is home to some of the most famous monuments of bike racing; The Tour of Flanders, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Flèche Wallonne, Gent–Wevelgem and many others. Not so coincidentally, Belgium is also the home of frites (which American's call "French fries" because most of us flunked geography). The secret to their famous frites is that they deep fry them not once but twice in oil and then serve them with heaps of mayonnaise. Similarly, Belgian waffles are served with lots of powdered sugar and real whipped cream. And don't even get me started on Belgian beer! Belgium is home to over 180 breweries, including 6 Trappist breweries and many of the top rated beers in the world. Most Belgian beers are not only higher in flavor, they are higher in alcohol. It doesn't take a statistician to see the correlation between these quality of Belgium's delicious foods and beverages and the quality of it's riders.

Belgian Superfoods

Belgian Superfoods

10. Listen to the Pros. OK, I understand that you may be skeptical of some of my advice here. So listen to these tips direct from the mouths of some famous former pros:

"When you want to do something you just have to want it more than the others" - Richard Virenque

"Here's the secret: You can't block out the pain. You have to embrace it." - Tyler Hamilton

“When you’re a father, you think twice before doing something stupid”. - Ricardo Ricco

"The method is the same for you as it is for the pros. The only thing different is the workload." - Michele Ferrari

"Hard work, sacrifice and focus will never show up in tests." - Lance Armstrong

I couldn't have said it better myself!

 

Colin Sandberg is the owner and head coach of Backbone Performance, LLC. He is still a Cat. 1 road racer but he is currently thinking about downgrading. He also coaches a junior team but he still doesn't know what "snap chat" and "twerking" are. If you have questions or comments, please don't send them. If you're still reading this, Happy April Fool's Day!