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Race to train: Improve your cycling with race training

Michael Donlevy
17 Mar 2020

Use the environment of racing to improve your riding even if you don't race

Racing is great. It gives your training a focus, pits you against others and helps you progress over time. But there’s good news even if you’ve never competed, because you can use the theory of racing to reinvigorate your training and make you fitter than ever.

Currently, having a race to aim for - even if it later gets cancelled or postponed - might be the motivation we all need to get on the turbo trainer and retain our fitness.

Here, our expert coaches offer advice across a range of race scenarios that can help you train and ride better than ever, regardless of whether you’re on the start line or not.

‘Everyone who rides should be well rounded, so you’re good on hills, on descents, on the flat, in a group, on your own, with a good balance between endurance and speed,’ says British Cycling coach Will Newton.

‘Racing – or training to race – will help in every area of your riding.’

How to ride in a group

Unless you’re competing in a time-trial, you’re going to come into close contact – figuratively speaking, we hope – with other cyclists.

Riding in a group is a key skill, so find some like-minded souls or join a club.

‘Practise group riding in a controlled environment,’ says Newton. ‘The reality is that things are different at speed. You don’t want to be on the rivet first time out, but the speed has to be realistic.

'If you get it wrong you’ll get dropped and you’ll be finding your own way home. Good coaching can help, as can practising on a closed circuit.

'There are no cars, potholes or pedestrians at a velopark.’

Once you’re up to speed, you need to take your turn on the front.

‘It means everyone shares the workload, and you work harder than if you’re just sat on the back,’ says coach Ric Stern of RST Sport. ‘You can make up for differences in fitness by varying the length of time each rider spends on the front.’

Safety is a big issue – you don’t want to cause a crash.

‘Look at the rider, not the wheel,’ says coach Paul Butler. ‘Wheels don’t give off body language. In fact I like to say look through the shoulder of the rider in front.

'I want to be aware of what all the riders in front are doing, and if there isn’t anyone else in front of the rider I still want to know if there’s a pothole, corner or roundabout up ahead.’

How to stay with the pack

‘You won’t build endurance by riding for 20 minutes, says Newton. ‘If you’re entering a five-hour sportive you need to get used to fuelling and the way your muscles work.

'You need to be sure your saddle is comfortable and you’ve got your bike fit right. If you’re uncomfortable it doesn’t matter how strong your legs are. If you start to hurt you won’t be able to ride.’

Staying with the pack is about endurance, which should be a key component of any training plan.

‘Once a week do a one-hour session comprising a 20-minute warm-up and three seven-minute intervals at race pace with five minutes recovery in between,’ says Newton.

‘This should be done as well as a weekly endurance ride of at least two hours – everyone needs a long ride most weeks, if for nothing other than time in the saddle and a chance to enjoy being fit.

'Do these at a steady pace on rolling terrain with some seated hills thrown in.’

‘Easier sessions are an opportunity to focus on technique,’ says Butler. ‘Concentrate on pedalling smoothly and note your cadence, trying to learn what cadence feels the most natural and takes the least effort for the same speed.

'If in doubt, it should be 80-100rpm on a flat road. These sessions are also an excellent way of learning to eat while training.’

This is important because when you ride for more than two hours your body switches from using sugars from carbohydrate to using your muscle glycogen.

Refuelling on the bike is essential for staying topped up.

How to break away from the pack

Making a successful break comes from a tactic known as surging, and this is something you can train for.

‘Sprint for 20 seconds, standing, and then ride for 40 seconds at just below the maximum pace you can maintain for an hour,’ says Stern.

‘Then do two minutes easy and repeat three to five times. After the last 40-second interval lower the intensity slightly and hold it for 10 minutes.

'It’s brutal but great training, and you can do it on a turbo as well as the road.’

Timing is everything, says Butler. ‘In a race, you may find the pace is high and suddenly things settle down. In a crit race that’s usually around 25 minutes in.

'Everyone sets off hard, but by then the guys driving the pace have had enough. That’s when you start to plan your move – then, or when you’ve brought a break back later in the race.

'It’s often the attack over the attack that sticks, not the first one.’

Now we’re into the realm of tactics, and the key is to attack from a few riders back.

Miguel Angel Lopez catches the bunch by surprise

‘Fire onto your target’s wheel and pull out as wide as possible, because that makes it hard for anyone to get on your wheel, then slingshot past,’ says Stern.

‘If you can arrange it, attack with someone else, as this allows you to share the workload. And this is something you can do as a session on group training rides, where a group can work “through and off” to try to catch the break while they do their utmost to stay away.’

‘Once you’re past, assess the effect of your effort,’ says Butler. ‘A 20m gap isn’t enough, so don’t keep thrashing yourself. Drop back and try again later.’

How to reel in a rival

Reeling in a rival in a race or a friend or complete stranger on a training ride involves maintaining a set pace to close the gap, as if in a time-trial – something Newton says Chris Froome has done regularly during his career.

‘If you want to ride for one hour at 25mph you’ve got to start by riding at 25mph!’ says Butler.

‘Once you’ve decided on your target speed you need to practise riding at that pace in your TT position. So if you want to ride a 25-mile TT in an hour, find a flat road and ride at 25mph until you can’t sustain it any longer.

'Now ride that road in the other direction to check your effort wasn’t gradient or wind assisted. Do this twice a week and you’ll increase the duration you can sustain 25mph for.’

A tactic also used by Tom Dumoulin 

‘If you’re close to the finish, ride as hard as you can over the remaining distance,’ says Stern. ‘If you know there’s a lot more riding to do you’ll want to be just below one-hour TT effort so you can pace yourself and not blow a gasket.

'In training, to build your TT ability you want to focus on some solo efforts where you ride for between 12 and 20 minutes at around one-hour effort for two to four intervals with a few minutes easy in between.

'You can do this one to three times per week.’

If there’s more than one of you chasing you should work together, going through and off to chase down the escapee.

‘Pacing is important,’ Stern adds. ‘Stronger riders ride for longer on the front and weaker riders for less.’

Now get out there and put this into practice. Everyone’s a winner.

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