I raced my first cycling competitions in Belgium in Spring of 2010 and it was a terrifying experience. I failed to finish my first two races, and struggled home several minutes down on the winners in the other kermiskoerses that I completed. I experienced muscle cramping in almost every event, not because of dehydration but because of the sheer exertion that I was demanding of my body, over and above what it was capable of delivering. It was a depressing experience. But at the same time that I was suffering on the narrow roads of Flanders, I was also learning a lot.
The first thing that I started to understand was that the elite Masters racing that I was competing in was nothing like the kind of long-distance road racing that I had trained for as a young man. At the Masters level, the distance is typically just 70 or 80 kilometres, not the 140 kilometres or more that is typical for the elite level amateur and professional racing.
I realised that I had to train my body to go very, very fast for a little more than 90 minutes – not to be able to race for 4 hours or more, as is typical of the professional cycle racing you see on TV. I started to understand that the first 30 to 45 minutes of that 90 minutes was especially important, for that was when the selection of strongest riders was typically made in a kermiskoers, and gaps would start to open-up in the race. If you were not able to stay in the front ten to fifteen riders in the opening laps, especially once that group opened any kind of gap on the chasing peloton, your race was pretty much over.
So in the summer of 2010 we spent almost two months on Corsica, and for six days a week I rode my bike along the beautiful coastline and into the mountains above Calvi and Ile Rouse. While I did a longer ride once or twice a week, what I really started to work on was intensity and really pushing myself to exhaustion on the long steady climbs that the Islands is famous for. I would do a five to six minute effort at close to my maximal heart rate, rest for a minute and then repeat. I would do this again and again until I literally started to feel sick and weak. At first I could only do two of these kinds of sessions a week, as I needed a few days to recover afterwards. But by the end of the summer I could manage three such workouts.
We came back to Belgium at the end of August and I headed to a race in East Flanders. As I lined-up I realised that I was not the only guy had been training hard over the summer – those Flemish guys looked muscled, lean and suntanned. The flag dropped, and I experienced a tortuous 30 minutes of pain before losing contact with the front group of ten or so guys who drove the breakaway. The rest of us knew it was over, and we raced the next hour with resigned effort. I just wasn’t strong enough, and I still had problems with cramp and back pain.
I kept riding my bike, I kept racing and I kept losing weight. The 2011 Spring racing season was better – I could consistently finish the races I entered, and I got in my first breakaway. Being in that breakaway as an Aussie cyclist in Flanders was an experience I will never forget – the pain and the effort, and the realisation that there was a group of fifty guys hell-bent on catching you just a half-minute or so back down the road. The guys in the breakaway pretty quickly realised I was a foreigner, and in true Flemish style started to shout at me in English. There is no friendship in that kind of group – just solidarity of effort until the final few kilometres when the guy beside you will quite happily lean you into the barriers if it looks as though you might sprint past him. In that race I came 4th (picture below), with just a few centimetres separating me from my first podium in more than 20 years.
That summer I lived a lifelong dream. My family and I went camping in France, and I competed in road races in the Auvergne and Languedoc regions. It was a very different style of racing to Flanders – races of 100 to 120 kilometres on beautiful open rural roads. The first half of these races was usually pretty civilised, before the real action would start in the final 50 kilometres or so. The competitors were almost gentlemanly, and I loved every moment. I was consistently finishing in the top 10, and I got my first podium with a third place in a hilly a race in the Dordogne. I won a bottle of wine, a loaf of bread and bunch of flowers. Fantastic! There was a big party at the campsite that evening!
In September I went to the European Masters Games in Lignano, Italy and I finished 7th in my Age Group Category. The race was on a very flat circuit, and not really suited to my physique, but I managed to make it into the breakaway with a Slovene, several Italians, a German and a Russian and we were able to stay away until the end. The Slovene guy won in a solo break, and Italians took 2nd and 3rd. I was over the moon with my 7th place – it was still two years to go until Torino, and I had really started to believe in myself. But the best part was coming home to Belgium – despite my 7th place, the kids had drawn a huge picture of a golden cup with a Number 1 on it.
Something else started to happen – I think my body began to accept that I was serious about this cycling stuff. My fitness gains and weight loss had been slow and steady in 2010 and 2011, but then seemed to accelerate. At the end of 2011 I bought the most amazing performance enhancement tool than any cyclist can use – a power meter. This new tool enabled me not just to train with heart rate and feeling, but with accurate numbers of the watts of power that I was producing in any given effort. It was a revelation.
Performance in cycling is relatively simple – it is a combination of power-to-weight, aerodynamics, race nutrition and tactical wisdom. Training is about specificity – simulating the kinds of efforts that one will experience in competition. Improvement comes from incrementally and progressively overloading the body during training and racing, and ensuring that one has enough rest and the right fuel to recover for subsequent efforts.
I started to use my power meter to record my Belgian race data, and I could see quite precisely the kinds of power that I needed to sustain to finish at the front of races. After just a few weeks, I could see a certain pattern – I was having to average 290 to 300 watts of power output for the first 45 minutes of a typical kermiskoers just to stay in the front group, and an average of around 270 to 280 watts over the duration of the race. I sometimes struggled in races with a lot of corners, as although I could hold a good intensity I was unable to do the repeated sprints at very high watts after each deceleration. But I decided not to worry about this too much – the racecourse in Torino would not involve tight corners.
Now my training became completely focused. I developed my training plan around simulating the course that I would race in Torino – nine laps of an eight kilometre circuit, with sweeping corners, long straight sections and each lap an almost 1km climb of between 12% and 18% gradient. Each lap should take around 11 minutes at an average speed of just over 40kmh, so I would have to hold about 270 to 290 watts for around 8 to 9 minutes, and then go up into the 400 to 500 watt range for the 90 or so seconds of the steep climb, before recovering on the descent and repeating. I would also need to be ready to chase breakaways or close gaps – efforts of maybe 340 to 360 watts for 2 to 3 minutes at a time.
Racing kermiskoers in Flanders was perfect for the threshold work that I needed, but lacked the climbing, so I also started to do some racing in Wallonia. In summer of 2012 we found an amazing camping ground in the Cevennes national park in the south of France which had wonderful surrounding roads for training. A short distance from the campground I found a quiet road at the base of one of the nearby mountains. The first section of tarmac was about 1km long, with a 12 to 18% gradient and I rode up that damned thing hundreds of times.
I raced in France throughout the summer of 2012, and in the second half of August I won my first race in more than two decades – a regional Masters competition near to Lyon. I promise you something – it felt just as good standing on the top step of the podium at age 41 as it did when I was 17 years old. And I had the proudest family in the world.
And I still had a year to go to prepare for the World Masters Games in Torino.