Category Archives: cycling

Living Like a Pro

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Training in the Basque Region, Spain

It is just one week to go until my first race of the season – The Tour of Good Hope, South Africa. The last half year has been amongst the most fulfilling time of my life, as I have embraced my commitment to prepare for the World Masters Cycling Championship in Albi France in August. In my last blog post I talked about my willingness to “live like a professional cyclist” and over the past six months I have done so. So what does “living like a pro” actually mean?

Since September I have been training under the mentorship of my coach and ex-professional cyclist Allan Davis, completing somewhere between 12 and 20 hours of training per week, split between time on my bike and workouts in the gym. Approximately half of my on-bike work is done indoor on my stationary trainer to allow me to completely control my efforts, and of course to deal with the Belgian winter weather.

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My Coach, Allan Davis

So how about balancing training, work and family? September through November was pretty steady with one or two days of work per week, typically a keynote talk or day of teaching. I did not take on any commitments involving long-haul travel at this time, so all of my work projects were in Europe avoiding long flights and jet lag. I tried to align my gym sessions with days that I needed to travel, as most hotels have decent gym facilities and/or a pool.

Four or five times a week I have started my day at 6.30am with an easy one-hour session on the indoor trainer, before joining the family for breakfast and doing the School commute. After the School drop-off I have headed out on my bike to complete my specific training activities, or gone to the gym or pool. This has typically been followed by shower and lunch, and then an afternoon of emailing, conference calls, writing and other work activities.

From December until end of February I have had very few work commitments in terms of keynotes and teaching – just one day a week or so. But this is typical as this time of year is always less busy, especially with regard to conferences and events. March and April has been almost completely blocked out in my agenda for racing – something which my speaking agent has been wonderfully understanding about.

After racing the Giro Sardinia at end of April, I plan to take it relatively easy in May and first half of June to allow time for my body to recover from a very intensive nine month period of training and racing. So I have told my speaking agent that I will be available in this period to ramp-up my speaking commitments – which also corresponds with the busiest time of the year for conferences and congresses.

My family have been very understanding – and I definitely have the most amazing wife in the world! Training at this level takes a huge amount of energy and focus, but I have been mindful about contributing to the household and spending quality time with Anne-Mie and the kids. There have been moments of frustration and annoyance, but I think that is normal in any relationship. But the family completely understands what I am working towards, and that makes a huge difference.

With regard to training, September through November involved a lot of time on developing muscular power and core strength, with three sessions per week of about an hour in the gym and a weekly swimming session. Training on the bike at this time involved three to four hour rides twice a week, interspersed with shorter sessions after the intensive gym workouts. December included a big training “block” in India where I participated in the Tour of Nilgiris, covering more than 1100kms in just eight days.

From start of January I shifted from gym sessions to on-bike power and intensity training, starting a number of new protocols introduced to me by Allan. The emphasis of these sessions has been on dramatically increasing my neuromuscular power, building on the weight training and core work done during my base building phase. The biggest shift for me was to introduce twice weekly efforts using lower cadence and higher power output through short interval work. These sessions resulted in a lot of fatigue, and were interspersed with easy “brew” rides to allow my muscles to recover.

On top of this, I have maintained two or three sessions per week of three to four hours on the bike, varying between easy riding and high intensity tempo riding. From middle of February we have included one or two Time Trial specific training sessions per week, very intensive but short efforts at high power using varying cadence to simulate race efforts over mixed terrain. And finally, I am just back from a four day block of training with Allan in the Basque region of Spain where we did climbing efforts and motor pacing at race speed.

In addition to the physical work, I have been focusing a lot on my diet, and Allan and I have introduced a regime of vitamin and mineral supplements to help my body cope with the intensive training load. I have provided a list of my supplements below, and it is identical to the regime used by a current World Tour professional team. I have a good diet, but it is difficult to meet all of the body’s requirements for branch chain amino acids, iron and other minerals – thus the supplements regime. I have found that my general feeling of health and wellness has improved with this approach, and I have not had any issue with colds, flu or illness over the winter months.

Although I have not focused on weight loss specifically, my weight has declined from 68.5 kilograms at start of September to 66kgs by end of February. I plan to lose another kilogram during March as I prepare for more mountainous race events in Cyprus and Italy, and this will involve dieting.

Figure 1 – Dietary Supplement Regime

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So what have been the results of “living like a pro” under the guidance of Allan Davis? I can objectively say that I am currently in the best condition of my life, purely on the performance metrics that I have been tracking over the past three years. I train with a heart rate monitor and power meter, and have been collecting and analysing my performance data since start of 2014. My current level of performance is somewhere between 5% and 10% better across the board than for my highest numbers in 2016 – for 5 minute, 10 minute, 20 minute, 30 minute and 60 minute functional threshold power.

Figure 2 – TrainingPeaks Performance Management Chart

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I have provided some of my data for the cycling nerds out there, and you can clearly see the steady progression of my fitness (blue line) in the above TrainingPeaks chart (Figure 2). I have also accrued a lot of fatigue (pink line), which I will now steadily reduce through tapering to see my race “form” (orange line) peak just in time for the Tour of Good Hope.

For the cycling novices, the main thing to appreciate is that my current performance numbers in terms of watts per kilogram of body weight (Figure 3) now equate to what is typically expected at the domestic professional level, also known as “Continental Professional” level here in Europe. So not too bad for an old guy.

Figure 3 – Peak Power Output

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Now it is all about converting this incredible feeling of fitness into some race results in South Africa in a little over a week’s time.

I can’t wait!

Post-Race Interview

CTCFinishI recently returned from South Africa where I competed in the four day Cape Rouleur Pro-Am Road Race, and the one-day Cape Town Cycle Tour (CTCT). I finished 1st Master and 3rd Amateur Overall at the Cape Rouleur, and 1st Master and 6th Overall in the Top Seeded Amateurs Group at the CTCT.

While in Cape Town I also gave a talk about work, life and cycling at the University of Stellenbosch Business School. After the event I was interviewed about my experience in training for and racing the CTCT by Brian Taylor. Below is the transcript of the interview.

Q. Were all the riders in your Top Seeded Group at the Cape Town Cycle Tour amateurs, or mixed with the pros?

The Professionals and Elite Amateurs (typically young guys who hold a UCI Elite racing license) headed off first, about five minutes before us. The guys in my 1A Race Group were the Top Seeded Amateurs and Masters (40+ years old). To make it into this group, riders must qualify by riding specific events throughout the year, in South Africa and abroad. There were around 200 guys in the 1A Group that I raced with.

Q. Were you racing in a team or individually? I am sure that makes a difference if you racing against competitors in a team and you are on your own?

I raced as an individual, which is why the final few kilometres were so difficult as I did not have teammates to lead me out, and I hit the front too early in the final 300 meters or so. But for my main event in Europe in April, the Giro Sardinia, I have a team of four guys riding for me. This means that I am sheltered from the wind, helped to close down gaps, and have a ‘train’ to lead me out in sprint finishes.

Q. What were your tactics for the Cape Town race?

In such a large group you need to make sure you stay amongst the front 20 or so guys throughout the race or you risk missing a split, especially on the tougher climbing sections like Chapman’s Peak and Suikerbossie. For these two climbing sections, I moved right to the front of the group at the base of the climbs, meaning that I could save energy by dropping back somewhat as the pace increased, but still keep contact. The riders tend to string out on these climbs. So if you are still in contact with the string of riders and do not lose contact, then it is kind of like an accordion as the long line of riders comes back together on the descents and flatter segments. This tactic worked perfectly for me, and after Sukerbossie I was with the front forty or so riders remaining – the rest of the starters had been left behind. I then worked my way towards the front ten riders by the 5km to go mark.

Q. You finished as 1st Master and 6th overall, but you said you found yourself at the front too early in the final 300 meters. When should you have launched your sprint?

It is difficult to go into the final kilometres racing guys you don’t know. In the final five kilometres I gradually worked my way towards the leading riders, and you will see from my on-bike video that in the final one kilometre or so I am in a great position, sitting in 4th or 5th position. But then in the final 350 meters the three guys to my left do not open-up their sprint and accelerate! And suddenly I am at the front, but with no wheel to follow. I am in the wind and I know it is too soon to go full gas. That’s not good. Then the three guys jump past me on the right. Of course, it would have been better if I was behind those guys – ideally I would have followed their lead, and then came past in the final 100 meters or so. As it was, I had to do a full 250 meters on my own, and you can see I fade towards the end as one guy comes past me on the line.

Click here to see my on-bike video of the final few kilometers: Video of Sprint at CTCT

So a bunch sprint is kind of like a very fast moving game of chess, as you need to keep a clear mind and predict the moves of your competitors. That is not easy when you are doing around 60kmh – sometimes you get it right, and sometimes you don’t. But I was still very happy with the result, crossing the line as 1st Master for the Top Seeded Group.

Q. Considering you are 45 and riding at the Masters level, the other chaps in front of you looked several years younger. So you did remarkably well?

I am not doing too badly for an old guy, especially since I train and race clean – I do not dope. My belief is that it is all about how far you can push your body as you age. Cycling performance is basically a function of power output, body weight and aerodynamics. Then comes self-belief, tactical wisdom and an ability to suffer.

I focused on weight loss over the winter, and my current race weight is at around 63.5 kilograms, which is the lightest I have been since returning to racing six years ago.  Body weight is especially important for climbing, as the heavier you are the more power you need to produce to overcome gravity.

As I am only 168cm tall I can ride an aerodynamically efficient position, and I race with quite narrow handlebars to reduce frontal drag. For the race I used an aero one-piece body suit and aero helmet, which combined can save 3 to 5 watts of power at race speed. That basically means that because you are cutting through the air more efficiently, you need to produce less power to hold a given speed. Over three hours of racing, those energy savings can help to give you that little bit extra when things get tough.

When in top condition, my power output (the amount of power my body can produce by pushing on the pedals and measured by a Power Meter in my crank set) is around 5.3 watts per kilogram of body weight for a 20 minute threshold effort, and I can produce a peak power output of about 1200 watts in a sprint. While those numbers would not win me a Professional World Championship against Peter Sagan, they are certainly within the range of domestic-level professionals and in the upper end of performance for elite Masters road cyclists.

For a discussion of typical power outputs by different levels of cyclists see: Watts/kg on the Power Curve

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Q. Is your bike purpose made for you or off the shelf?

My race bike is off the shelf – a 6.5-kilogram carbon fibre LOOK 695 with Shimano Components and Zipp carbon wheels. It is a special edition painted in the style of the artist Piet Mondrian, which I think is pretty cool. I talk about the intersection between art and business in my keynote speaking, so it’s nice to ride what I preach.

Q. How often do you train for this sort of race? 

I train between ten and fifteen hours per week, but I only aim to be in top condition for around eight to ten weeks each year – March–April and late August-first half September.  So when I am building up to a big event, it is more like fifteen hours, including a few hours a week in the gym for power training and core strength. I do more than eighty percent of my training alone, as each of my sessions is planned to develop specific areas such as strength, power or endurance.

In the ‘off’ months when I am working more, I train about six hours a week. In the ‘old’ days trainers talked about the need to do lots of slow and steady ‘base’ miles in the off season, but modern training approaches challenge this, especially for Masters athletes who need to work harder to maintain muscle mass, strength and power. So my emphasis during the months when I ride fewer hours is on maintaining power and strength, mostly on my indoor trainer and in the gym, not riding hours and hours of endurance.

Q. What kind of other special training do you do?

The important thing is to train for the hardest part of the race that you are targeting. It is pointless to do lots of six hour rides at a steady pace, if the race you are targeting is just three hours long, will be raced very fast and has half a dozen short and steep climbs. If the race has short, steep climbs then you need to train your body to do repeated explosive efforts over short, steep climbs. If you are racing events in the mountains or time trialling, then you need to train your body to hold high-power output for longer durations, say between twenty and forty minutes. In this case, explosiveness is less important.

My training program is based around a four-week cycle, with three weeks of increasing intensity followed by a one-week rest period in which I hardly touch my bike. I have found that as I age, recovery is increasingly important so I monitor my resting heart rate every morning. If my heart rate is ten to twenty percent above normal when I wake, then this is usually a good sign of fatigue.

Using a power meter during training is also very important to monitor fitness and fatigue. For example, if I do a warm-up, followed by five minute effort, and see that my power output is more than five percent below what is expected at a given heart rate, then this is a pretty sure sign that my body has not recovered from a previous training session. So I simply get off my bike, and shift that training session from the morning until the evening, or even the next day. It is amazing that sometimes an extra five or six hour of rest is all the body needs to be prepared for the next training effort at full intensity.

Q. How do you balance your work and sport?

I am constantly juggling three balls – my family, my cycling and my work. I fully believe that it is impossible to balance things equally all of the time – at certain times of the year I am a very good cyclist and (I think) a good Dad as I am home a lot. But at those times I am not working too much. At other times of the year I am very focused on work, a bit less of a good Dad in that I away from home quite a lot, and not at a top level as a cyclist.

The main conference periods In Europe are May-June and September-November, which is when I earn more than seventy percent of my annual income. During the other months when I am focused on training and racing, I work a bit but not as intensively. I might give one talk a week, or a day of teaching here and there.

During my peak training months, especially from December until March and in July and August, I do not do long-haul travel, and I don’t do multi-day workshops as this disrupts my training too much. I am able to do this as I am self-employed, but the speakers’ agencies and Business Schools with which I work also understand and respect this.

So I plan my year around juggling my cycling and work. And of course, I try to be a good husband and dad most of the time. Although, a few weeks ago I was shouting at my kids at the end of a long day on the bike, and my eight year old son Charlie said: “Pappa, you’re tired and hungry. Maybe we should not be having this conversation right now.”

Q. What are your next goals?

I will now take a week of rest, and then do a heavy ten day training block to prepare for the Tour of Cyprus, a three day Pro-Am stage race at the start of April. Then at the end of April I will race the six-day Giro Sardinia. Both races are quite mountainous, so I am hoping for some good results given that I am climbing well at the moment.

You can find my talk at USB here:  What is Success, Really?

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On Being a Cycling Dad

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A few days ago I sat on the sofa together with my wife Anne-Mie and my children, Ries, Hannah and Charlie. In my hands were four hand-written messages of love and support, wishing me success for my first races of the season in South Africa.

Eight-year-old Charlie had drawn me his dream aeroplane, with a cycling training track, gym and Jacuzzi. Hannah, who is eleven, had drawn a colourful mountain with bikes on top, and a winners trophy boldly standing forth. My big boy Ries had simply written ‘Our NR 1, Always.’ And from my wife, cut-out pictures of my face stuck on winning Orica GreenEdge riders, with funny remarks about podium girls.

How many opportunities do we have in our adult lives to receive such expressions of unwavering support? Of course, as kids many of us experienced encouragement for our youthful endeavours. But it seems that the older we get the fewer chances we have for people to cheer us on in living out our dreams. Sure, we might get complemented and rewarded by our colleagues for our  work achievements. But for me that is nothing like receiving sincere encouragement from those we love, for pursuing the passions that bring life meaning.

For me, this heartfelt expression of support from my family gives me such motivation. Because my wife and my children are telling me that this dream to realise the potential that I have as a sportsman is something for all of us to celebrate. They know more than anyone how hard I work, how much I suffer when I crash, and the discipline and sacrifices that are required to get on to the podium at the international level.

I understand that this sporting journey is far from a solo undertaking. A few years ago I remember crashing in one of those crazy and fast Belgian Kermise races in East Flanders. I shattered my left collarbone, cracked my pelvis and was sent by ambulance to the nearest hospital in a town called Dendermonde. My wife and then five-year-old son Charlie came to visit me in the hospital after the surgery on my shoulder, and I could see the worry in their faces. It was mid 2012 and about twelve months before the target event of my biking comeback – the World Masters Games in Italy.

As I lay in the hospital bed, my little boy took my hand and stared into my eyes. He asked, with worry in his voice, “Pappa, when will you be able to ride your bike again. Will you still be able to do the World Championships.” I smiled back at him, and said “Yes Charlie, it will take a little time for my body to get better, but I will be ready.” A few minutes later he managed to accidentally press the button on the bed remote control, almost catapulting me across the room.

And in August 2013 Charlie and his Mum, brother and sister cheered me on to a bronze medal in the road race at the World Masters Games in Torino. As I crossed the finish line, they were all waiting with outstretched arms.

But perhaps what made me proudest about standing on the podium in Torino was the fact that we had already started to see in our children this courage to dream big, to believe that anything is possible if you have energy and focus and self-belief. It’s part of why I ride my bike, to show my children that life is for living.

I am sure that the future will give us many more reasons for celebration. Not just through my own sporting adventures, but also in celebrating whatever dreams my wife and my three children aspire to achieve.

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A day with Alexander Kristoff

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In my last blogpost I talked about how life sometimes knocks you down. Isn’t it funny how life can also give you wings – I just met my cycling idol Alexander Kristoff!

I had just left the small apartment where I was staying with my family in Puerto de Mogan on Gran Canaria, and was heading up a narrow rural road towards the centre of the Island. I had planned a long and steady day on the bike, and was enjoying the sun on my back when a small group of cyclists caught up to me. As I glimpsed over my shoulder, I recognised several guys in the Norwegian colours of blue, red and white and then I saw the two in red. They looked different – lean, and tanned and relaxed on the bike. And then it hit me – they were wearing the new colours of Team Katusha, with names down the side of their jerseys – Kristoff and Bystrøm. I could not believe it – what were the odds of meeting these guys on my training ride!?

Alexander Kristoff is one of the world’s top classics riders, and has won Milan San Remo, the Tour of Flanders and a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympic Games. Sven Erik Bystrøm was under 23 World Champion in 2014, and joined Katusha as a professional in 2015. And here they were, riding beside me on the road to Mogan and the mountains beyond. As is etiquette in cycling, I asked if I could join the small training group and was welcomed into the fold. I introduced myself, and met each of my six Norwegian companions. As it turned out they had not started the day together, but had formed the group along the beach road on the way from Puerto Rico.

We held a steady tempo as we headed up into the mountains, and chatted away as the gradient was not too steep. Kristoff told me about his trips to Australia and the Tour Down Under, and how he had decided not to go this year given his focus on the Spring Classics and defending the Tour of Flanders. I learned that the other Norwegian guys were out for a short ride of just a few hours, but Kristoff and Bystrøm were planning a big day of six or seven hours. So I asked if I could tag along, and the two professionals said “sure, no problem.” A grin spread from ear to ear as we reached the top of the climb and three of us turned left and the other guys turned to the right. It was just me and team Katusha!

To say that riding with Alexander and Sven was exciting for me would be a big understatement. I was ecstatic! When I first got back on to my bike more than five years ago, I sought out and trained with young elite level guys in the area where we lived near to Brussels. Some of those rides almost killed me, but I told myself that if I wanted to race at the elite level again, I would also need to train at the elite level. I found it so motivating to be training with the elite guys, many of whom were at least twenty years my junior. But I never imagined that one day I would be out on the road with Alexander Kristoff and Sven Bystrøm.

When you ride with guys for six or seven hours there is no need to rush the conversation. So we chatted in a relaxed way as we headed further into the centre of the island, talking about how we came to cycling, about goals for 2016 and our families. I felt a bit self-conscious talking about my plans for competing in South Africa and Italy in the Spring, especially considering the races that they will be doing at that time, but the guys listened and wished me luck.

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Sven told me that they were working to a four-day training cycle – three days on the bike, and one day of rest before the next cycle. Today was the day for long steady distance after a day of interval work, which suited me just fine. We stopped for a short lunch of cheese sandwiches and coffee, topped-up our water bottles, and enjoyed the view to the peaks surrounding Tejeda. On the way back down the valley, I saw first hand how fast professional cyclists can descend, even on a training ride.

All in all I spent almost seven hours with Alexander and Sven, and we covered around 170kms and more than 3500m of climbing. It is a day that I will remember for a very long time, although not because there were any flashes of insight or golden nuggets of training advice. In fact, I was struck more by the ordinariness of a long day in the saddle with two guys who have chosen cycling not only as a passion but also a job. I had the pleasure to meet two very open and sincere human beings, who despite their fame and achievements were happy to share their ride with me.

I am a lucky guy, and I am sure 2016 is going to be a very good year – for me, for Sven Bystrøm and for Alexander Kristoff.

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HAVE YOU SEEN MY TED TALK: What is Success, Really?

Self-Belief, Beyond Reason

Eight months ago I lay beside the road on a mountain descent in Mallorca. It was early April and I had just hit a brick wall doing about 50km per hour, breaking ten ribs, puncturing a lung, dislocating my right shoulder and cracking several teeth. And I was pissed off – furious at myself for losing concentration on the corner, and angry that all of the hard work that I had done on my bicycle over the winter was now lost. But I did not despair – not even for a moment. Because throughout my life I have sometimes experienced setbacks and heartache, but I have always been able to get back on my feet. And I knew that this time would be no different.

After the ambulance arrived at the roadside I was taken to a small hospital in the nearest town, but the doctors took one look at me and shook their heads – my condition was too serious. They put a drip in my arm to ease the pain, and I was transferred to the intensive care unit of the University Hospital in Palma. The rest of the journey was a blur.

That evening, after the catheter had been inserted to drain the fluid from my punctured lung, I managed to call my wife Anne-Mie. With laboured breathing, I told her that I had crashed, but I was okay. No broken neck, no head injury and I could remember the kids birth dates. I told her that I was going to be okay – that it would just take time.

I spent a week in the hospital before I was allowed to travel home to Belgium by ferry and train – I was unable to fly because the tear in my lung was too serious. In that time I had a lot of time to think, and of course I started to write this blog. But not for one moment did I consider that my life as a cyclist was over – I just accepted that my goals for the 2015 season were gone, and that I would have to focus on repairing my body.

Lying in that hospital bed in Mallorca I reminded myself that life is long, and that this accident was just a setback. At only 44 years old, I have many years ahead of me – in 2016 I will turn 45, and that means progressing to the Masters 4 Category for guys from 45 to 50 years old. So I said to myself, “next year will be your year.”

A few days ago I had a quiet celebration – I got back on my bike at the start of July, and for the past five months I have been steadily rebuilding my fitness. I still have some pain in my ribs, and the shoulder aches a bit, but the rest of me feels fine. I record all of my training sessions with a Power Metre and Heart Rate Monitor, and it is exhilarating to see that my condition is now back to where it was before I had the crash. My body’s ability to sustain power is about the same as when I got on the top step of the podium at the Cape Town Cycle Classic back in March – and that feels amazing.

But more importantly I still have a passion to compete. For me, love for my sport is not about a small spark in the dark. It’s about a burning fire, and self-belief beyond reason. The fire still burns, and 2016 is going to be a very good year.

WATCH MY TED TALK: What is Success, Really?

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Mid-Life Dopers

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I compete against mid-life dopers. I ride with a power meter, a crank-mounted device that measures the number of watts you are producing at any given moment on the bike. So I don’t just feel the pain that I go through trying to stay with some of the middle-aged amateur cyclists I race against – I can actually see the numbers they are putting out. And sometimes those numbers are simply unbelievable.

I participated in a multi-day race in Sardinia last year against Masters riders from all over Europe. About half way into the 140km first stage I found myself putting out around 360 watts at the base of a long climb just to stay with two Italian guys in my age group category. These were not little skinny guys like me (I am 168cm tall and my race weight is around 64 kilograms) but tall, well-built men of at least 75 kilos.

The two Italians were smoothly riding away from me on the climb, and taking into account their body weight and the incline, this meant that they were putting out as much as 10 percent more power than I was – maybe 390 watts – and they were holding it! When in peak condition I can hold 360 watts for about ten minutes of pedaling, before I completely blow-up. So I shook my head and watched them ride away.

To put 390 watts in perspective, Chris Froome’s estimated power output on the mountain stage he won in the Tour de France this year was around 410 watts. So what I witnessed in Italy just didn’t make sense for middle-aged amateur cyclists. I Googled the names of the two Italians that evening to discover that one of them had recently returned to competition after a two-year doping suspension.

Over the course of the week-long race, these two guys raced aggressively every single day – there seemed to be no fatigue, and they attacked constantly. I eventually finished third for my age group classification, but was more than twelve minutes behind by the end of the week. The other guys in my age group joked that we were engaged in two-speed racing – the winning Italians in one class, and the rest of us in the other.

The fact is that doping, and especially the use of the blood booster EPO, is all too common in amateur Masters cycling. Unlike professional cycling, there is no biological passport system involving the systematic and regular testing of competitors. In many countries, such as Belgium, there are random checks at race events but typically just a handful of riders are tested. In many events, like the one that I raced in Italy, there is no testing at all. So the odds of getting caught are quite small.

Doping products such as EPO are affordable, and readily available for purchase on the Internet. The real challenge is how to deal with the mid-life dopers, and I think that out of season testing must become a reality for those Masters riders who are performing ‘exceptionally’ in race events. For example, I know of a 50 something cyclist who won 8 out of 10 Masters events in a Belgian Kermesse series a few years ago. Given the level of competition in Belgium, that kind of performance verges on the unbelievable. Out of season testing of amateurs is already done to an extent in the US, and scores of riders have been suspended as a consequence. The same should be done in continental Europe.

Although there is very little research about doping by Masters athletes, I have read a lot on the psychology of doping at the elite level of sport. Much of the literature talks about game theory. The simplest game in game theory is “prisoner’s dilemma”. In the athletes’ version, both cyclists will be better off if neither takes drugs, but because neither can trust the other, both have to take them to make sure they have a chance of winning.*

If it is highly likely that the majority of your competitors are doping, then you have two options. You can choose not to dope, and be almost certainly beaten as a consequence, or you can dope, and be given a fighting chance. I have read scores of interviews with cyclists who doped during the Armstrong era, and almost all of them talked of this athlete’s dilemma.

The financial stakes in professional sports can be high, and this is also a factor that undoubtedly drives some to dope. But it is not just about fame and fortune – many young cyclists who encountered the doping culture of the 1990s and early 2000s had dreamed of professional cycling since they were kids, sacrificing education and career opportunities for a sporting path. They had travelled far from family and friends to make it as a rider in Europe, and were then sucked into an environment in which doping was the norm – where it was expected by peers and mentors. For them, cycling was a job and doping became a tool of the trade.

But the reality for middle-aged cyclists is very different. There is certainly no fortune, as even the best amateur Masters racers spend far more on equipment, travel and race costs than they ever get from prize money. Cycling is a passion, not an income generator. Fame is also elusive, as Masters cycling is rarely reported on by the mainstream media.

We are not surrounded by people who encourage us to dope. In fact, those who cheat disgust most of my cycling peers. A Belgian rider who is almost fifty years old won his age-group category of a week-long Masters race in Italy this year, and also rode unbelievably well on the general classification. Not only did he finish in the top ten, but he consistently outclassed riders twenty years his junior – every day of the event. He has served a previous doping suspension, and was openly ridiculed by other cyclists at the race. I wondered if this was fair, but his performance on the road left few doubts in many peoples’ minds.

To me it seems that the prisoner’s dilemma still plays a role in elite Masters cycling – the fear that others are doping, so to win I must dope too. But what this also says is that the individual puts ‘winning’ above all else. And in the absence of financial rewards and fame ‘winning’ is essentially about two things: firstly a sense of self-achievement, and secondly recognition from family, friends and the Masters cycling community.

But in both cases the outcome is a lie for dopers – you have not achieved your true potential, and the recognition that you are receiving is undeserved. It is one thing to mislead the Masters cycling community about the reasons for your performance, but to do so to spouse, children and wider family and friends strikes me as very sad indeed.

And this is why I pity the mid-life dopers. Because what they have failed to acquire is the wisdom that at this stage of life, winning is not just about receiving a medal after a bike race. It’s about how you got there, and who you have become along the way.

Earlier this year I won my age-group classification and was also 1st International Amateur Rider overall at the Cape Town Cycle Classic. It was the first time in my life to stand on the top step of the podium at a major international race.

Standing on that podium in South Africa, I held the trophy high.

CAPETOWN

*For a good discussion of game theory and the athlete’s dilemma see: The Economist, Doping in Sport: The Athlete’s Dilemma, 20 July 2013. ARTICLE

Shut Up Legs

JamieLegs

When Michelangelo produced a marble sculpture, he talked of ‘releasing’ the figure from the stone. Each strike of his chisel moved him a little bit closer to revealing the potential within. When I returned to competitive cycling more than five years ago, I thought of my body like that heavy block of stone. I believed there was an athlete within, but it would take a lot of chiseling to release him.

I once read an interview with a former professional cyclist who was asked by the magazine’s journalist: “What does it take to become a great rider?”. The cyclist’s answer: “Choose you parents very carefully.” It is clear that genetic make-up represents a significant contribution to elite sporting success, especially so in endurance sports such as cycling. But genetics are only a part of the story.

Some sports scientists attribute up to 60% to 70% of an elite road cyclist’s likely success to genetic inheritance, with maternal inheritance (ie the mother’s genes) the most important. My Dad was never an accomplished sportsman, but my mother was a talented long-distance swimmer in her youth.

When I was seventeen years old I had my VO2 Max measured. VO2 Max calculates the amount of oxygen your body can use in one minute measured per mL for each kilo of body weight, and is expressed as mL (kg/min). A sedentary male typically has a VO2 Max of around 50 mL (kg/min), and a ‘recreational’ cyclist around 60 mL (kg/min). As a teenager I achieved a reading of around 76 mL (kg/min), which is close to someone like Simon Gerrans (Aussie pro cyclist riding for Orica GreenEdge). Tour de France winner Cadel Evans is reported to have had a VO2 Max of 88 mL (kg/min), and Greg Lemond 92.5 mL (kg/min). So thanks for the lungs Mum!

VO2

But while physiological indicators such as VO2 Max, efficiency of motion, and power output per kilogram of bodyweight are clear and established markers of fitness, most sports scientists agree that there is more to cycling success than physiology – other key factors include training methods, technique, tactical wisdom and motivation. Training methods can be learned, and tactical wisdom and technique (such as descending and cornering) come with coaching, experience and racing. But motivation is a completely different story.

Once you understand how to train, almost everything about becoming an elite road cyclist involves willpower – or what the psychologists call the locus of control. A journalist once asked the former professional Jens Voigt what goes through his mind when he is at the extreme edge of suffering in a race breakaway. “Shut up legs” was his response, a statement that has become a worldwide mantra for cyclists.

As Voigt understands, the key to becoming a winning cyclist lies in one’s ability to embrace suffering. It’s about riding in terrible weather, pushing yourself beyond your limits, dieting and sacrificing other priorities to make the time for riding and competition.

A few weeks ago I was training in the Belgian Ardennes near the border with Germany. It is a beautiful area with good roads, forests and long winding climbs. Although mid summer, the weather was foul on the day of one of my rides. Looking out of my hotel room window after breakfast, the wind was howling, the sky dark with clouds and the rain coming down sideways. When I Googled the day’s weather forecast things were only expected to get worse.

I trained for around 100 kilometers in the rain and wind, and did not see another cyclist for more than four hours. At times I crawled up those long sweeping climbs as the rain lashed in my face, and by the end of the ride I could feel that my body was completely drained – that I had used almost every ounce of energy to push the pedals and to keep warm.

At one point a few hours into the ride, as the rain penetrated my overshoes and my feet became soaking wet, my mind started to tell me to turn around and go home. But I didn’t. Because my will told me that this was part of the journey.

I can’t say that I truly enjoyed myself on that ride through the Ardennes – that would be misleading. But I understood that what I was submitting to was part of a bigger objective that will come many months down the road.

That’s the locus of control – the willpower to do the difficult work that needs to be done, in whatever endeavour you decide to excel at in life.

It’s about having the fortitude and self-belief to keep chipping away at that block of stone.

The legs of the top of the post are really mine – after five years of chiseling!