As with most things in life, the hard wiring in our brains causes a good thing (cycling) to carbonate the pleasure centers. And that same hard wiring has led us to believe more of a good thing (speed, perhaps?) to be a better thing, beer-bust nights in college notwithstanding. Most cyclists need prodding in the none-to-little category to get the idea that going faster on a bike would result in more fun.
So how do you get faster? Training. The benefits of more and better training are weight loss, a stronger heart, and improved eye-hand coordination. The active lifestyle hardly needs a sales pitch; if you’re reading this, the signs are pretty clear that you do not want to be a couch potato. The amazing thing about cycling is that because its primary demands are aerobic—that is, dependent on the heart and lungs—even the most out-of-shape couch jockey can realize fantastic gains in fitness. Those gains depend almost entirely on the amount of time you are willing to put in the saddle. While there does come a point of diminishing returns to training, the low-impact nature of the sport makes it easy to do daily.
For you, this means logging miles in the saddle consistently. Naturally, that begs another question: What’s consistent? We each have our own constraints in life. A full workweek for some may be 40 hours, but your average lawyer could fit a vacation in working only those hours. Similarly, each cyclist will define his or her ability (availability) to train differently.
If riding with a group or doing organized rides such as centuries are your goal, then riding needs to be a regular part of your week. But you don’t have to do what the group does to stay with it. Chris Carmichael, president of Carmichael Training Systems and Lance Armstrong’s coach for his seven Tour de France victories, put it this way: “You need not be able to complete a 100-mile ride on your own to be able to complete a century with a group.”
To give you some perspective on commitment, an entry-level racer will need to train 10–12 hours per week (yes, that’s like a part-time job) to have any success in racing. Racers in the top categories will train upwards of 20 hours per week. A pro racing the Tour de France will train a minimum of 30 hours per week during the season. If you want to do group rides and stay with the group, you will need to train at least six hours per week.
As you pursue greater levels of fitness, it becomes important to vary your training. You will want to do long rides and short rides, hard rides and easy rides. How you vary these will make a profound difference in your fitness. By cycling these different efforts properly, you can advance more quickly than a rider with a less-deliberate training regimen.
Defining the Physique of the Racing Cyclist
As a rule, the elite cyclist is a pretty skinny specimen. There is no chance one will ever be confused with a professional wrestler. This is because large amounts of upper-body muscle are unnecessary to make the bicycle go. In fact, except for sprinters, muscle bulk anywhere on the body is generally counterproductive to efficiency. Many racers weigh no more than they did in high school. Women need not worry about losing their girlish figures by riding a bike.
Many cyclists are classified according to their talents. Even though most folks think all cyclists look like famished runway models, they show significant differences in ability. In broad strokes, cyclists can be grouped according to three different builds:
• Climbers look like long-distance runners and are the skinniest of the lot; they have a high strength-to-weight ratio which helps them go uphill quickly.
• Sprinters look like football players and have the most muscular build among cyclists; they have the strength to make impressive accelerations.
• Time trialists look like track and field athletes; also called rouleurs, they are riders with the power to be fast on flat to rolling terrain.
Types of Muscle
There are two kinds of muscle fiber, slow twitch and fast twitch. If you’ve ever looked at an anatomic drawing of a muscle, you’ve probably noticed that some muscle fibers are colored red while others are white. The red muscle fibers are the slow-twitch fibers, which tend to be more plentiful. The white muscle fibers are the fast-twitch muscle fibers.
Slow-twitch muscle fibers do most of the work in cycling. Each ride is made up of thousands of repetitive movements. Cycling is an aerobic sport because it recruits slow-twitch muscle fiber to do most of the work, and the primary energy source for slow-twitch muscle fiber is oxygen. Because you get a fresh supply of fuel with each breath, you can ride at a moderate pace for hours at a time.
Fast-twitch muscle fibers do the hard work. Whenever you make a big effort, such as standing to charge up a hill, you use the less-plentiful fast-twitch muscle fibers. Fast-twitch muscle fibers are said to work anaerobically—without oxygen. Literally speaking, this isn’t true, but the real point is that fast-twitch muscle fiber burns glycogen—sugar. Unless you eat during the ride, each “anaerobic” effort gradually empties your bank account. And because there are fewer fast-twitch muscle fibers than there are slow-twitch muscle fibers, these fibers fatigue quickly. Riders will talk about how many “efforts” they have in their legs in acknowledgment of this fact.
Primary Muscle Groups
The quadriceps group of muscles does most of the work of cycling. The “quads” consist of four muscles: the vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, vastus interomedialis, and the rectus femoris. These fire on the downstroke of the pedaling motion. Additionally, the gluteus maximus, which is the strongest muscle in the body, helps to extend the hip in the early phase of the pedal stroke and aids hip flexing at the end of the pedal stroke. The gastrocnemius is responsible for the ankling motion of your foot, specifically, pointing your foot down, while also helping to flex the knee. The gracilis and iliotibial band help to stabilize the knee during extension.
Types of Fitness
The complete cyclist must achieve three different kinds of fitness. Riding in a peloton requires a rider to possess endurance, strength, and speed. These different kinds of fitness each have specific development requirements:
• Endurance is the ability to ride for long periods of time without the onset of fatigue. Endurance is gained through long rides. Without endurance, it is difficult to develop other forms of fitness.
• Strength is the ability to overcome resistance. Strength is gained through weight training in the gym and large-gear interval training. Without strength, it is difficult to ride fast.
• Speed is the ability to move quickly. Think of speed in terms of body movement, not velocity. Speed is gained through high-speed cadence drills and sprints. Without speed, it is difficult to make sudden accelerations.
The Greek philosopher Socrates had it right when he said, “Know thyself.” If you wish to achieve serious fitness, you will find attaining that goal difficult unless you make an effort to track your training. What equipment you have will influence just what you can record and how you might record it. Here are your options in rising level of complexity:
• At minimum, you should purchase a cyclocomputer and a simple calendar notebook in which you can write how long each ride was, how hard you went, what the terrain was, and how you felt.
• The addition of a heart-rate monitor (HRM) to cyclocomputer and calendar will allow you to add figures about your heart rate (HR). Resting HR, average HR on the ride, and maximum HR during hard efforts are numbers worth recording.
• A GPS device can track all of the above information, map your ride and download it to any of a variety of software programs that can help you track your efforts.
• A wattage device will give you the highest degree of feedback. The combination of wattage, HR, kilojoules, and time will give you essentially the same information set that pros use. Wattage devices come with software to analyze the data, but there are a variety of online and software-based coaching programs to help you make sense of the numbers. Some work with GPS devices, giving you the best of both worlds.
Just What is Hard?
Amazingly, people agree on the difference between hard and easy. Exercise physiologists use a scale called the Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE). Studies have shown that people correlate effort with surprising consistency on this 20-point scale.
Rating Purpose Exertion
6 Recovery No exertion at all
7 Recovery Extremely light
9 Recovery Very light
10 Aerobic training
11 Aerobic training Light
12 Aerobic training
13 Tempo training Somewhat hard
14 Tempo training
15 Sub-threshold training Hard (heavy)
16 Sub-threshold training
17 Sub-threshold training Very hard
18 Aerobic capacity training
19 Aerobic capacity training Extremely hard
20 Aerobic capacity training Maximal exertion
If you don’t have the aid of a heart-rate monitor or wattage device, the combination of the RPE scale and cyclocomputer can give a fair assessment of your training.
Heart Rate and Work
Heart rate is a simple indicator of workload. A heart-rate monitor is a standard tool for training because it can objectively show just how hard you are working. When training with a heart-rate monitor, cyclists divide their training into five discrete zones; these zones correspond with specific points on the RPE scale.
Training Zone Target Heart Rate
(% of max HR) RPE Training Purpose
One <65 6–11 Recovery-aerobic
Two 65–80 12–15 Tempo
Three 81–90 16–17 Lactate Threshold
Four 91–95 18–19 Aerobic Capacity
Five 96–100 20 Sprint
Training zones are not fixed numbers; they are defined relative to your maximum heart rate (Max HR). As a result, you need to find out your Max HR to give the heart-rate monitor’s readings context. The traditional rule of thumb regarding Max HR is to subtract your current age from 220. For highly trained athletes, this number can be off significantly, but for new cyclists it’s a great starting point.