|Let the season begin!
I always found the beginning of a cycling season to be filled with both anticipation and anxiety. The anticipation was certainly to get that adrenaline flowing again and unleash the competitive monster inside me. The part that I always loved about racing was, well, the racing. The training required to be a professional cyclist was (and is) both painful and tedious. Quite simply, the preparation I did in January would determine how my season would turn out. This was the purgatory time that created anxiety with questions in my mind: Did I spend enough time in the gym? Did I spend too much time in the gym? How long will it take me to get fast again?
January was the time to reflect on what had been last season and what I was to be in the coming year. It was a time for self-assessment, recognizing where to focus the time to improve: sustained power, top-end speed, time-trialing, acceleration whatever. The natural tendency is to spend more time on facets of riding where your strengths are because it feels natural and good. It takes discipline to keep focused on the areas that need improvement. The ability to maintain that discipline is one of the differences between being good and being great. I needed to be clear on what my goals were for the upcoming season, and what it would take to peak for specific races at specific times. I worked with the team's physiologist to design everything in training backwards from those goals. Looking ahead to the long season it was difficult in January to get in the swing of things, but without goals, impossible.
After a hard racing season consisting of over 14,000 miles of riding and over 100 races, a much-needed rest from the bike was in order. Typically, November through December was "time off," but only off the bike, that is. There was always plenty of hard work to be done in the gym in terms of 2-4 hour workouts, usually 5 days a week.
For me, time spent in the gym meant from November through sometimes February and did two things:
1. made me about 20% more powerful in summer, during the peak portion of the cycling season.
2. made me suffer like a dog and feel like an 80 year old man when starting to ride in January.
I had mixed feelings about gym work and wasn't a big proponent of it through my 8-year cycling career. It made me feel like crap, lethargic and unnatural upon returning to the bike for the early season. Still, I had by far my best season in1993, which was a result of many factors including a disciplined gym regimen from November through February.
January was typically the first time my road bike's tires had hit pavement in the last two months, apart from the Thanksgiving Day beer ride. I can recall every "first ride" in January of every season I raced. Due to the work in the gym my whole body would feel so tight and the bicycle was a foreign torture devise to rip off my legs. I can clearly remember every pedal stroke, thinking, "how did I get so slow?" and "when did they make these hills bigger?" Plus, the crisp January air bites and reminds the virgin lungs that they have been in hibernation for the last couple months. In just two months my heart had forgotten how to pump the necessary volume of blood that I demanded while climbing. My heart seemed to work so hard trying to learn again what my body demanded of it. My body wasn't used to the pain yet of training let alone racing. I would come damn close to bonking on a 50-mile spin. Throw out the 12-21 gear clusters that I used during the racing season! These were times for the low gears, like 12-23 or 12-24. It's funny how now in 2002 the low gears are standard equipment on my machine. Not that I've rethought my 75rpm cadence; I'm just slower now.
Climbing onto a bicycle when it's 30 degrees out, or worse, raining torrentially was no easy chore, but training had to be done day in day out. Wearing gloves, leg warmers and over jackets are the order of January. Mental toughness was, and still is, forged on rainy January rides. Every pedal stroke I would think of my competitors and tell myself that "they" are not tough enough to be out here for 4-6 hours in the freezing rain like I am. I motivated myself by envisioning being on a solo breakaway in a European classic like Paris-Roubaix. Those were weeks of tough miles with occasional rides with teammates or group rides to break up the monotony. Every day in my journal I would enter notes about my progress; heart rate, weight, ride length, how I felt, what gears I used, my effort level, etc. I knew how important patience and focus were to achieving my goals for the season.
I always felt in cycling that January was the most trying time for my ego. The work spent in the gym coupled with the necessity for putting in "base mileage" gave an appearance that I wasn't riding well. I often found myself holding back the reigns on group rides with the "Kings of January," typically inexperienced cat.3 and cat.4 riders that had been training their eyeballs out all winter. The "Kings" felt the incessant need to always try and drop me on every incline and/or occasion. My competitive instincts made me want to "put it in the big meat" (53tooth chain ring-ed.) and show them who their daddy was. Via con carne, we used to say (literally, "go with meat" or show some balls-ed.) Fortunately, I learned early on to do my talking in the races during the season. So if these wankers got to fulfill their fantasies by saying to their friends how they "dropped a pro" on January training ride, so be it. My sole focus was to prepare for races like the CoreStates U.S. Professional Championships in June, and in 1993 it was against one Lance Armstrong for a record $1 million. What those speedy "50mile-wonder" riders didn't see (and probably couldn't fathom) was that after completing their 50-mile "death ride" I would put in an additional 50-70 miles to get in 6 hours of training. These rides always made me appreciate the speeds and fitness that I achieved in the summer. Patience, keeping focused on my goals, and showing discipline in January meant success in the summer.
Every day the training in January would get perceptibly easier as my body would again quickly grow accustomed to the long, hard miles on the bicycle. With a lean frame of 5'10" and 145lbs, it didn't take long to cut down to race weight, 140lbs with less than 5% body fat. Once again, my present 165lbs cheeseburger-ridden body can only look back upon my former racer self and laugh. My speed would come eventually, slowly increasing by the smallest increment. With a training schedule built from macro and micro cycles, progress is measured in the minutiae. For motivation I would always tell myself "the more I hurt now, the more I will make everyone else hurt on the climbs in the summer". The biggest mistake of inexperienced riders is to think that if they jump on a bike and start training 500 miles a week, they too, can be a pro. It doesn't work that way. It took me 8 years of building up my body to be able to train professional distances. The harsh fact is that cycling progress comes very, very slowly. Year built upon year. And it all starts in January!
"Big C" - Chris Ott