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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!

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Am I good enough…?

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One of the realities for anyone who has big dreams is self doubt. That nagging feeling that big achievements are for other people, and that one doesn’t have what it takes to reach those bold horizons. But I think we also have another fear – that we will reach the end of our days and regret that we gave-up too soon, and that we did not fulfill the potential that we all have inside of us. That is something which really drives me – I would hate to come to the end of my life thinking that there was something left undone.

I had a great season this year – nine podiums in races in Belgium, South Africa and Italy. So now I am thinking about 2017, and I have a big goal – I plan to race the UCI World Masters Championships in Albi, France. The 150km road race will be held over an undulating and very tough course, peppered with steep climbs. But I have to ask myself – am I good enough? Am I really good enough to win a World Championship?

I would really love to get on the podium in Albi. But the first consideration in preparing for a race of this level is to take an objective look at the physiological requirements. So to do that I have spent time analysing the performance of some of the top Masters cyclists in the world.

In this endeavour I have been helped by the social media platform Strava. You see, many of my competitors upload their training and racing data to Strava so I can analyse the physical performance of these guys in a way that has never been possible before. Not only can I see how many kilometres of training they are doing – I can also see their physiological parameters, such as power output per kilogram of body weight over different time intervals.

And make no mistake – the performances of many of these middle-aged amateur cyclists compare to riders in the professional peloton. The reason for this is because these amateurs live like professional cyclists – many of them ride over 20,000 kilometres per year, averaging upwards of 20 hours a week on the bike. But I am okay with that – Albi is a big goal for me, so I will make time to do whatever training is needed. I can live like a pro for a year.

To help me on my journey towards competing in Albi I have enlisted the coaching support of Allan Davis, an Aussie former professional cyclist with an impressive palmares. As part of preparing a training plan, we have looked at the results of the 2016 Masters World Championships that were recently held in Perth, Australia. Some of the guys who finished on the podium for the M4 (45-50 yo) category in the road race in Perth have uploaded their race and training data to Strava.

I have shared my insights with Allan, and we have both come to the same conclusion – without some kind of chemical enhancement, I am very unlikely to be able to produce the kind of raw numbers on show. I am not suggesting that the guys who made the podium in Perth are dopers – I know the Aussie winner Sam Smith and I trust 100% that he races clean. It is just that physiologically many of the top Masters riders seem to be able to do stuff that I have not been able to do up until this point in my cycling career.

So what are my thoughts for Albi? In Perth, three very strong guys won with a long-range breakaway that was formed with more than 85km remaining. Could that tactic work again next year? Given that many of the same guys will race in France, I am hoping that the peloton will be more reactive in chasing down attacks. This would mean that a larger group of guys survive into the final stages of the race.

The average speed of the race will be somewhere around 40 kilometres per hour, so I will need to be able to sustain a high average power output for roughly four hours. The actual wattage number I have calculated is about ten percent less than the power produced by the gold medallist in Perth, but I am smaller and lighter than him and do not intend to lead a breakaway or drive the pace at the front of the pack. So training goal number one will be to train my body’s ability to hold that high average power for four hours.

ALBI WORLD MASTERS COURSE

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Training goal number two will be getting over those climbs. The hills in Albi are not especially long, and not especially high. But they are steep and there are lots of them – ranging between three and ten minutes duration at race speed. The biggest challenge will come at the 55km mark, and if I am unable to hang on to the strongest guys on that first major climb then my race will be over. So I will need to train my body to produce a lot of power for the ten minutes or so of that climb. To help me fight gravity I will also need to lose weight, and should be down at around 64kg by race day, about 2.5kg lighter than I am now.

Positioning will also be crucial on those climbs, and I will need to be near the front of the peloton at the foot of each ascent. This will allow me to conserve energy by dropping back as we ascend, while staying in touch with the leaders as the accordion of riders strings out. I will arrive in Albi at least two weeks before the race, and will ride the climbs and descents.

If I am still at the front end of the race with a group of riders in the final kilometres, then attacks will certainly come. The guys who cannot sprint will try to breakaway and whoever is left will have to follow. These attacks are violent, explosive efforts of half a minute to a minute just to hold on to the guys in front of you. So goal number three will be to work on those explosive high-lactate efforts. This will involve a mix of on the bike interval work, power training in the gym and of course Kermis racing here in Belgium.

For me, the ideal finale for the Albi race will be to come to the line with a small group of riders – anywhere from five to fifteen guys. I can produce a big burst of speed at the end of a long and hard race, and I can keep a clear head. So the final piece of the training puzzle will be sprint work, done mostly on the indoor velodrome in Gent.

A look at raw data suggests that I am not good enough to win in Albi – there are so many guys out in the cycling universe that are stronger than me. I’ve seen their numbers.

But a look at raw data would have suggested that I wasn’t good enough when I competed at the World Masters Games in Torino three years ago…And I came home with a bronze medal.

In 2012 Simon Gerrans won Milan San Remo. A fellow Aussie who is almost exactly my height and weight, Simon finished ahead of Fabian Cancellara, Vincenzo Nibali and Peter Sagan. In his words: ““Without question Fabian was the strongest, I can’t deny him that…But it’s not always the strongest guy who wins the race. You have to play a little smart and be there.”

I am good enough to win in Albi. Because winning bike races is not just about numbers – it is about tactical nous and riding to your strengths. It is also about having a little bit of luck.

And most importantly it is about self belief.

Link to My TED Talk: Click Here

Big Hairy Ambitious Goals

I remember when I was working at London Business School back in the early 2000s, and I taught on a program for a big international telecom company based in the UK. The company used the acronym ‘BHAG’ or ‘Big Hairy Ambitious Goal’ to describe what they were trying to achieve in the business world. I adopted the term as part of my journey towards a medal in the mens road race at the World Masters Games in Torino.

My body is almost fully recovered after my accident back in April. Ten broken ribs, a dislocated shoulder and a punctured lung don’t heal overnight, and my first few months back on the bike back in July and August were just awful. I had lost so much strength, that I was regularly passed by the lone retirees that you come across pedalling the roads of Flanders. And they were not riding electric bikes!

I can admit that the accident had not just hit me physically – I felt depressed, as the pain was pretty much constant for about three months. It was impossible to lie flat, so I slept in a ‘Grandpa’ chair for more than ten weeks. When I first got back on my indoor trainer at end of June, I was exhausted after just 30 or 40 minutes of pedalling. My body was using so much energy to fix itself, that any added exertion left me drained.

But bit by bit I have increased my training intensity over the past four months, and now I am starting to hit the performance numbers that I was doing back in April. One of the good things about the accident is that it has really taught me to sense my body – I don’t know if its real or imagined, but it is kind of like I can feel my muscles, joints and even respiration with a heightened sensitivity. So every day when I start my training session, I first spend some time just sensing my body. And then I compare the way I feel to the screen in front of me – power output, heart rate and cadence.

The other good thing about the accident is how motivated I am feeling about getting back to competition. The start of this year was quite stressful – our contractor had gone bankrupt in the middle of building our new house, throwing our moving plans into disarray and meaning that we had been stressed with getting the project back on track over the winter. The whole episode had really disrupted my training, so I came into the Spring behind where I would have liked to be. I had some good results in South Africa in March, but I felt distracted. Then the accident.

But now I feel incredibly motivated to make the 2016 season one of my best. For the past six weeks or so I have been waking at around 6am almost every morning, doing 60 to 90 minutes on the indoor trainer before Anne-Mie and the kids are out of bed. I am in my obsessive groove, where training gives me the kind of kick that I guess musicians and artists feel when they are in their flow. There is no boredom or loneliness, no mental distraction. I’ve even started to talk to Anne-Mie and the kids about my power curve and watts per kilo, and they are kind enough to feign interest.

Now its time to set some BHAGs !