I’ve been at this bike racing stuff for a long time I’ve learned a thing or two as I’ve gotten older and slower. I’ll pass along a few of the more valuable lessons I’ve learned – some the hard way.
Take time to rest and recover. As athletes it’s in our DNA to want to push, push, push and push harder. Especially if you’re like me, you just simply love to ride your bike whether you ever do a race or not and every time you ride you end up going fast. Give yourself a break. The longer and harder you ride, the slower you’re going to become. Train smart and give yourself a day off now and then. Fresh legs are fast legs.
Ride and train alone more than you do group rides. Group rides are great fun and social but all too often, they end up become “races” and you never really give yourself the opportunity to become a stronger rider. Think about it – in a group ride, you spend a lot of time drafting. When you’re drafting, you’re not fully working. If you’re not fully working you’ll never get used to how extremely difficult it is to go all out on a solo attack or to bridge by yourself across a gap to a break. You’ll benefit more if you do a majority of your training on your own.
Do time trials, even if you’re a sprinter. I don’t know a single racer at the elite level who isn’t also at least a decent time trailer. The best sprinter I know is a guy who does well in time trials and even won the most recent race that he and I did together with a solo attack in the last 5 miles. He could have waited until the final 300 meters to win – it was a forgone conclusion – but he attacked the winning break of 9 riders and rode solo to the line. That’s classy.
So many racers are anal retentive about their preparations. All conditions don’t need to be “perfect” in order for you do race well. Sometime you won’t have time for your “ramp up” on the trainer before a race. Don’t fret if you didn’t eat exactly what your coach told you at least 3 hours prior to your race. Sometimes life will get in the way of your ideal training week. Don’t worry if your legs aren’t giving you good feed back the day before a race. If you take yourself out mentally before the race starts due to some perceived short fall in your routine, you just as well not even toe the line. Seriously…I’ve had some of my best races on days that my legs felt like lead balloons during warm ups or suffering with a screaming hangover. Several years ago, a team mate and I decided to go for “a sandwich and a beer” the night before the state championship criterium. That night ended at about 3:00 a.m. We were both toxic. The next afternoon, I initiated and drove a break that lapped the field after only 20 minutes and ended up winning the state championship. My team mate won the field sprint. This training method is not recommended but every day is a new day and every race plays out. Some times your preparation the day before or day of a race isn’t perfect, but learn to trust the months of training you put in rather than the few hours leading up to a race.
The older you get, the less you can afford a long “off season”. I used to be able to hang my bike up for a couple of months at the end of the season and start training again in the spring and hardly miss a beat. Now, I find that if I take a month off the bike in December, it takes me until June before I’m right. An hour or so of specific work on the trainer in the winter 4-5 times a week will do wonders for keeping you ready to ramp up once the weather turns if you’re in a cold weather climate.
Learn to read races. Most of the time, the fastest or strongest guy doesn’t win the race. Most of the time, it’s one of the fast, strong guys who is also the smartest and most opportunistic. I have a team mate with an uncanny knack for knowing exactly the right time to make an attack. He’s well trained but he’s not the best time trailer, not the fastest sprinter but he wins more races than anyone I know because he knows WHEN to go by sensing the energy level of the other riders. Winning races is about using your energy in the right way at the right time.
Learn and repeat what you did leading up to successful races. For me, I know that if I have a couple of weeks of high volume mileage, then an easier week before a big race, I’m likely to do well. Some guys race themselves into shape; some guys train themselves into shape. Some athletes do best with short intense training rides. Some athletes do best when they’ve had high mileage weeks at moderate pace. Learn what puts you into the best position to do well and stay with that formula.
If you work on your weaknesses, you’ll end of with strong weaknesses. I’m not a sprinter. I can go fast, but I’m not ever going to win a race in a bunch sprint. I can do sprint repeats until I vomit, but it will never give me fast twitch muscle fiber that I need to have the explosive jump of a sprinter. The only way I can win races is to batter the field with repeated attacks until people are sick and tired of chasing me. So, I do training rides that emphasize endurance and recovery from hard efforts rather than sprints. Find your style and train your strengths.
When you’re not having fun racing – step back and just enjoy riding your bike. One summer I was plain tired of the racing scene. I wasn’t having fun, so I just took a couple of weeks, went to Door County in Wisconsin to visit my daughter who gone up there to stay with friends and work for the summer. I rode slow and enjoyed the beautiful wooded scenery and re discovered my joy, got my mojo back and a couple of weeks later started racing again
Bike racing is HARD. Getting into a break is HARD. Winning a race is HARD. It hurts physically. It’s never easy. If you’re not willing to suffer you’ll never win a race.
Finally, it’s best to understand that in bike racing you’re going to have more downs than ups. You’re not going to do well every time you pin on a number. You’re going to have days where your legs are dead and you’re breathing like an asthmatic. You may crash. Don’t let those days discourage you. Those days will make the good days that much better.