|Aaron Long, 2013 Rio de Janeiro Elite State Championships|
Training in the winter for bike racing is a brutal activity that very few people can comprehend—hours spent suffering quietly so you can emerge in the spring ready to race and brawl against all your rivals and your mental demons. Our past racing results and failures are what motivate us daily on our winter-long pilgrimage of torture and torment.
Living here in Idaho, I have the choice to either go outside and brave the elements or suffer for hours on the trainer. Neither is very pleasant, but both are essential. Each and every one of my winter training experiences builds a foundation for the coming road season. The one thing I know for sure is that the harder and longer I train, the more indestructible I become.
While surfing the Internet recently, I came across a cycling blog with a great quote: “Train so you can make yourself harder to kill.” On my way down into the basement to train the same day, I picked up a new deck of playing cards from a shelf. I opened the box and took out the promotional cards from the deck, ripped them easily in half, and tossed them in the trash. There were of course 54 cards left. It struck me that this particular workout I was dreading was just one card in a deck of many. That doesn’t mean the workout didn’t have value. What it meant was that this workout was an opportunity for me to “stack my deck” for road season. Today’s training might create the one-second gap I’ll need later on the top of a climb or to win a TT. Today’s workout might also crush me and make me rethink why I do this sport. To be completely honest, most of my workouts do a bit of both.
I was now sitting on the trainer trying to tear the entire deck in half. I couldn’t do it. I’ve seen a YouTube video where a guy ripped a phonebook in half, so I know it’s possible. But I’ve also seen Fabian Cancellara time trial at 50k an hour, and I can’t do that, either. The two promotional cards I’d thrown away were easy to tear. They took only a few watts, at most. Destroying the deck would take power I didn’t yet possess, and time trialing at close to 50 kph would take a bit more work. Both the phone book ripper and Cancellara the TT ripper could literally destroy my personal deck of cards.
Thinking back to the last year’s road season, I realized that the epic winter of training I had done allowed me to do the same thing on a different level. I certainly hadn’t become world class or starred in my own YouTube video, but I did have a few magical days on the bike. My deck of cards was definitely more robust than some of the guys I was racing against, and in a few cases I was able to destroy a few others who in the past have destroyed me. I had moved myself up in the hierarchy and created a few lackeys along the way.
If you think of a field of bike racers like a bunch of playing cards, this starts to be a valid training theory. As a whole the field is a vicious monster. Just like a full deck of cards, it is hard to rip it in half, but during the race you have many opportunities to play the game and manipulate it in your favor. If you can’t climb and the race finishes on a hill, you’d better get in a break. If you can climb, don’t panic; you can win from the break or the field. Just like any form of gambling, if you want to win you have to be prepared to lose. The great thing about bike racing is that you can win even if you aren’t the strongest; you just have to know how to play the game to optimize your strengths.
Here’s the trick: don’t handicap yourself by not coming to the race prepared. If you were dropped the year before on the climb, you’d better show up lean and ready to rumble. You have all winter to prepare. Don’t waste the opportunity. Every time you train you have a chance to “stack your deck.” If you do it right, you will eventually be strong enough to survive even the most desperate of moments.
We train hard day in and day out with the goal of becoming winners. In the short run you might lose a ton. You will have some terrible workouts and results. These losses will test you more than any good workout or race you have ever had, but bad wattage during a workout or test is the best medicine in the long term. Training hard will make you more consistent. The more consistent you become, the more durable you will be. I don’t have the highest five-minute or twenty-minute power, but I race well almost every weekend, and I can sustain my peak wattages on a regular basis, regardless of whether I’m at mile ten or mile one hundred. Just like everyone, I struggle early in races when everyone is fresh, but after a few hours I start to feel like a beast. I can often make up my own rules late in the race. It’s as if three-fourths of the deck is gone; now I’m playing with just a few racers, and that is when the real game begins. I know there will be four face cards and a joker left. All five have a shot to win, but often it is the rider who pulls the ace from his or her back pocket who wins the race.
Last year I remember racing to the KOM against a particular racer I was sure I’d beat. We had gapped almost 100+ racers, and I was definitely riding at a new peak five-minute power. We were ten meters from the KOM line, and he stood up and humiliated me. In just ten meters he shredded my deck of cards. That experience is definitely one I will not forget. I didn’t have a bad day or bad legs. His better was just better than mine.
This makes me think about the past seven years of training and racing. Over those seven years I have had a ton of good and bad moments. I have 2,000+ power files, and every one of them tells a story. And they all make me a bit harder to kill. I realize now that my current fitness is a sum of those seven years. They enable me to survive hard training sessions day after day. At times they’ve allowed me to ride the break into pieces, and occasionally they’ve dealt me the sweetest hand.
A racer doesn’t have to look much further than Cadel Evans to find inspiration to fight for an entire season. Evans came up short all season for every one of his goals. He had an awful Tour de France and Vuelta. I’m sure his team was about to fire him! But his deck was so stacked that he knew he had an ace left in his pocket. Evans won the world championship by holding his cards close and playing the game until the very last deal. He could easily have packed it in for the season and stopped racing, but like all good addicts, he couldn’t stop gambling. He knew he was ridiculously fit and just needed a few things to go his way. That day at the world championships is proof that you can’t win if you don’t play.
Even the bad workouts and races have a place in my deck. You’ll notice there are a lot more plain cards with numbers in a deck than ones with pretty pictures. The pretty pictures are the rare cards. They can win you tons of money in Vegas or in the back room of a smoky bar. They are the cards you wish you were dealt every day. But to be honest, what fun would gambling be if you won every time? It is the losing and stress of losing that makes winning such a cool experience. Training is just like that. If your goal was to always feel good on your bike and to always win, you wouldn’t have gotten into bike racing. You would just do tours and your local group rides. You would search out events where you were the strongest and just crush people. That would be like going to Vegas and betting a penny.
As you sit on your trainer or ride in the freezing cold, I want you to think of your ride today as just one card. This one ride will not make you a pro or win you a national championship. This card is just one in a deck of many. The larger you make the deck, the harder you will be to destroy. This one ride is part of what will make you the beast in the breakaway that rides everyone’s legs off. This one card is the one second that will win or lose you a time trial. Don’t expect every ride to be perfect. Don’t be shocked when the watts are awful. Be excited when things go your way, because you know that the cards will be against you at some point and this success will help.
Think about riding hard fifty-four times before you expect to see great fitness gains; that’s fifty-two hard training sessions and two jokers before you expect to improve. A few good workouts will not win you races. You need tons of good and bad rides before you truly become an excellent bike racer. You will learn how to play and win with a poor hand. The longer and harder you train will enable you to stack the deck, and eventually you’ll be playing with five aces and a few jokers up your sleeve. From the outside your stellar performance will look like a damn magic trick, but like all magic, it’s the hard work put in by the magician that makes it look real.
Sam Krieg is a USA Cycling Level 3 coach. He and the other PCG coaches create custom training plans for all levels of athletes. Sam can be contacted directly through PeaksCoachingGroup.com.