Tag Archives: balance

Getting Serious about Going Fast

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.

4th

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.

P1060064

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.

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What I Think About When I think About Cycling

To understand why returning to elite level cycling was so important to me, I think it is necessary to  share a story.

It is funny, but I cannot remember a time when I could not ride a bicycle. I have very few photos of when I was a small kid, as money was scarce growing up and my parents were more focused on getting food on the table than spending money at the photo lab. But I do have a crumply white bordered picture from when I was maybe 3 years old, sitting on a rusty metal three-wheeler. I have very red hair, fair skin, loads of freckles and a beaming crooked-tooth smile.

A bike was an essential childhood tool for a kid growing up in a small country town in the country Australia. There were miles of trails and jumps in the bush that ran along the muddy Goulburn and Broken rivers that meandered past Shepparton. In the summer we would ride our bikes to our favourite swimming spots, or go fresh water crayfish catching in the irrigation channels that criss-crossed the orchards on the outskirts of town.

In the mid 1970s we all had dragsters, and then I got a second-hand BMX for my 9th birthday. The arrival of BMX was a life changer for me as I finally discovered a sport that I enjoyed and was reasonably good at. As a scrawny little kid, I was really not cut out for Aussie Rules football, which is a violent cross-between of rugby and judo. And I found cricket, which is basically like baseball on valium, unbelievably boring.

So I joined the Shepparton BMX Club which had its track at the back of the Twilight Drive-In Movie Theatre on the outskirts of town, and I would race there every Saturday morning. My training involved doing a newspaper delivery round for an hour every night after School, and racing around the bush with my mates.

When I was 12 I decided to have a go at track racing. My brother Robbie had messed around on the track, and I was good friends with a kid named Paul O’Brien who’s big brother Shaun was a talented cyclist who raced at the State and National level, and eventually went on to become an Olympic medallist. There was a cycling club in Shepparton, and the club had constructed an Olympic standard concrete velodrome – quite an undertaking in a town of just 14,000 people in which bike racing was considered a bit of an oddity. I remember going along to watch Shaun race, and I was captivated by the speed and excitement of the banked piste.

My fascination with the track soon turned into a passion for road cycling, and my bedroom became like a shrine to the Tour de France, with posters of my heroes Phil Anderson, Bernard Hinault, Greg Lemond and Miguel Indurain. One of my club mate’s Dad was an ex-professional cyclist, and their family had a VCR. I remember racing to his house whenever a Video of the Tour arrived, and watching my first Belgian classic and Paris-Roubaix. All that I dreamed about was becoming a professional cyclist in Europe, and I started to train harder and harder.

By the time I was sixteen years old I had qualified to race the Australian National Championships in Launceston, Tasmania. On the way to Launceston I had achieved high-level results at the provincial and State championship level, and had discovered my ability as a punchy climber. At just 168cm tall and around 62kgs, I was built to go fast when gravity kicked-in. It was difficult for me to always do well – most of the junior-level racing in Australia was on flat terrain that favoured bigger kids. But the state selectors saw my potential.

I never forget being woken up by my Dad at 5am the morning that the State junior team for the Australian National Championships was announced. In those days, the team lists were released in the Sun newspaper, and my dad had waited at the newsagent all night for the papers to make the journey up from the printing presses in Melbourne.

My father was so proud that I had made the team, and we both knew that this was a huge step towards a possible place at the Australian Institute of Sport, and my dream of racing in Europe. In the end, the National Championships were an anti-climax – I fell terribly ill with a virus a few days before, and barely made the top ten. But I knew that I had the ability to race with the best in Australia.

Then, my family’s world began to unravel. My Dad had always been a troubled person, battling alcoholism and a complex personality. But by 1987, the same year that I qualified for the Nationals, he had been suffering from worsening bouts of depression. This manifested itself in full-blown bi-polar disorder, and during 1988 he stopped working and was institutionalized.

My Dad’s mental decline was devastating for my mother, and also hit my 14 year-old brother very hard. Relations between my parents and several of my other brothers and sisters were strained, so I felt a huge responsibility on my shoulders – not just to support my mother and little brother emotionally, but also to contribute to the family financially through working part time.

At the same time that my Father’s illness was worsening, I was also entering my final year of High School. I was an intelligent kid, and had always done well at School. I had never found it difficult to balance my schoolwork and cycling, but with Dad’s illness and the added burden of needing to increase my part-time working to help Mum financially, something had to give.

With my Dad in and out of psychiatric hospital there was no money for us to travel, and I had to rely on friends to get to races. It was a struggle to buy racing-quality equipment, and I remember being laughed at on the start line of more than one race for my cheap balloon like tubular tyres. I became an expert on bike maintenance, wheel truing and puncture repair.

The second half of the 1988 road season was a disaster for me, and I will never forget the moment I was dropped by the lead group in the State Championships. Twelve months before I was the one attacking on the climbs, and now I was being left behind. My Mum and little brother were waiting at the car after the race, and we drove the 150 kms home in silence.

A couple of months after the State Championships I sat my High School finishing exams, and remarkably did very well. In fact, I did so well that I was offered a place to study an undergraduate degree at the University of Melbourne, as well as a state-funded scholarship for the underprivileged.

Everyone around me was so happy with my academic achievement – my family, our neighbours and friends, my teachers and even the people at the supermarket where I worked. My brother and sister who lived in Melbourne offered for me to live with them for the first year, as the scholarship was not enough to pay for university housing. I would also have to continue part-time working to get through.

Of all of the hundreds of kids on the housing estate where I had grown up, only a handful had gone on to tertiary education, and now I had the opportunity to join that privileged few. But for the previous six years – for more than a third of my life – all I had dreamed about was racing my bike in Europe. And it was not just a dream – I really believed that I had the engine and the self-discipline to make it as a professional. Now my dreams were crashing up against cold reality – my father’s illness, economic necessity and social expectations.

I was not yet 18 years old, and I had to make a choice.