Late for Nowhere

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Posts Tagged ‘Bike racing

Five lessons from a legendary cycling coach

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Late last month, I read the news that renowned cycling coach Eddy Borysewicz had died from COVID-19 at the age of 81 in his native Poland. He was well-known, among other things, for preparing U.S. cyclists for medal-winning performances in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and for helping develop a young Greg LeMond into the first American to win the Tour de France in 1986. (Earlier this month, LeMond became the first cyclist, and only the 10th individual athlete in history, to be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.)

Borysewicz, or Eddy B. as he was known, also played a key role in the development of an entire generation of young wannabe bike racers in the 1980s, including me.

I started racing in 1983 at the age of 15. At that time, detailed information about cycling was hard to obtain in places like rural Pennsylvania, where I grew up. My “training” consisted of riding 25 to 40 miles a day through the hills around my hometown – good enough to prepare me for small local events, but not enough to avoid getting thrashed at the regional level by faster, fitter cyclists.

Something essential was lacking in my training program. Then, in early 1985, along came a book titled “Bicycle Road Racing: A Complete Program for Training and Competition” by Eddy Borysewicz. It opened my eyes to the concept of carefully planned, year-long training programs. To be competitive in May, I learned, training started in December, and each day of the week must be dedicated to a specific aspect of race fitness: endurance, tempo, intervals, sprints, recovery.

My copy of “Bicycle Road Racing” was lost years ago, and much of its 20th century wisdom has long since been supplanted by updated training techniques. But I recently looked through an old copy of the book at the local library, which helped jog my memory about a few of the other ways Eddy B. influenced my approach to the sport.

1. Bicycle racing is hard, so toughen up

Sample quote: “In Poland I have trained when the temperature was 5-10 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit). There was no such thing as saying, ‘Oh, it’s so cold. We will train if it warms up tomorrow.’”

As a young, ambitious cyclist, I took Eddy B.’s admonishment about training in bad weather to heart. I was out on my bicycle in all conditions, whether it was endurance rides in the chill air of January, intervals in the steady rains of April, or sprints on sweltering afternoons in July. There was a sense of accomplishment, even pride, in returning from a hard, three-hour training ride soaked to the bone and frozen half to death. As I have grown older, I’ve become less dedicated to cycling in inclement weather, but sometimes it can’t be helped: In June 2019, I signed up for the 130-mile Michigan Mountain Mayhem event near Traverse City. During the first four hours of my seven-hour ride, rain poured from the clouds and the temperature hovered in the mid-40s. The reward was finishing the tough, hilly course in the beautiful, warm sunshine that followed the storm.

2. Intense, sustained concentration is required

Sample quote: “Racing takes great power of concentration. Many a rider has failed to concentrate for one moment and suddenly found himself at the rear of the field. This is the most dangerous position because there is no self-determination.”

This is one of the hardest aspects of bicycle racing, which those who have never participated in the sport have trouble understanding: the need to maintain laser focus from start to finish, even throughout a four-hour race. One momentary lapse in awareness could mean being out of position during a crucial point in the race or, even worse, going down in crash. Over the years, I have also dabbled in running and even trained up for the 1997 Los Angeles Marathon. Although I would never describe running 26.2 miles as “easy,” the luxury of being able to zone out for minutes at a time over the course of four hours made it far less mentally taxing than even the shortest bike race.

3. Bicycle racing is a contact sport

Sample quote: “If you bothered me when I was racing I would hit you with my rear wheel – bang it right into your front wheel and knock you down if you weren’t a good bike handler. I would say, ‘You want to play? What kind of game do you want? I’m ready for anything. C’mon!’”

Thankfully, the majority of cyclists (including me) never indulged in such dubious or dangerous tactics. But we needed to be prepared for those who did. More often, though, contact during races was unintentional, the result of riders not paying attention (see previous lesson), or swerving to avoid a dropped water bottle, or simply lacking the skills to hold their line through a corner. Dealing properly with unexpected physical contact while speeding down the road at 25mph meant honing bike-handling skills on easy training days: for example, finding a grassy field to ride across at slow speed with teammates while bumping elbows, handlebars, and wheels. The object was to learn how to ride straight, stay upright, and, if necessary, push back without going down. Unfortunately, this is a lesson that many road racers in the U.S. still have not embraced, and too many of them don’t spend time developing these skills. As European cyclists are fond of saying, Belgian grandmothers have better bike-handling skills than most American professionals.

4. Data and metrics can improve training

Sample quote: [After nine minutes of hard effort on the indoor trainer, stop and take your pulse.] “Do this with your fingertips on the carotid artery beside your Adam’s apple. … If it is 170 beats per minute this schedule is perfect. If it is 160 or less the work was too easy and you should use bigger gears. … When you get 180 or more the work was too hard and you should use lower gears. When your pulse exceeds 180 on the first set you won’t be able to handle the second one.”

This was the first time I had heard about paying attention to heart rate. Of course, using your fingers to take your pulse in the middle of a training ride is less than ideal, and has long since gone the way of the dodo thanks to technology. Also, it is woefully unscientific to suggest that all athletes should train based on the same heart rate levels. (According to the old 220-minus-age formula, my maximum heart rate should be 167, but in practice I still reach the low 180s during interval sessions.) Now, with heart rate monitors and power meters dominating the training landscape, it’s hard to remember that long-ago era when I measured my cycling efforts purely according to my own perceived exertions while chugging up the hills of central Pennsylvania.

5. Proper nutrition is important (but don’t always take dietary advice from an old-time European coach)

Sample quote: “You may burn twice as many calories in a four-hour road race as a factory worker will burn in a full day. To replenish these calories you must eat food that is necessary as well as food that you like. For example, I never ate horse meat in my life until an eight-year period when I was racing. Horse is considered very good meat because it has no fat. In Europe riders eat it a lot. It is also much cheaper than beef and pork. But horse meat? It didn’t sound good at all. At first I ate only a little, then more, and then I was eating a lot. I rode well on it. When I stopped cycling I stopped eating it.”

This was one of the most memorable passages in the book, and in the 1980s it resulted in baffled parents of young cyclists across the country fielding queries about where to source horse meat. But it did help me realize that I had to put more thought into what went into my body to fuel my training and racing program – a lesson that seems increasingly important as I grow older.

Above: The author in action in a bike race somewhere in New Jersey circa 1988, while riding for the New Age Cycling Team based in State College, Pennsylvania.

A grueling start to the cycling season

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On Sunday, April 15, I participated in my first organized cycling event of 2018: the Rollfast 8×8 Challenge in Brown County State Park in southern Indiana. Getting to the start line required a 2:30am wake-up call and a three-hour drive from Fort Wayne through darkness and rain. Dawn broke as I entered the park, and the rain continued falling while I prepped my bike and pulled on multiple layers of clothing: cycling cap under my helmet; thin base layer, long-sleeved jersey, short-sleeved jersey and rain jacket on my torso; tights over cycling shorts covering the legs; wool socks and shoe covers protecting my feet; and long-fingered gloves on my hands.

At the start line, it was apparent that the inclement weather had kept more than half of the 100 pre-registrants home for the day: I counted fewer than 40 cyclists shivering along with me in the cold rain as the ride announcements were made by the organizer, who remained sheltered in a tent while he issued warnings about the dangerous descents along the 11.7-mile loop. He then put down the microphone, stepped out of the tent and proclaimed the commencement of our 8-lap, 94-mile odyssey.

Lap 1: My grand plan to start the ride super-easy was tossed out the window by the need to warm my body. The climbing started immediately, and I shifted into my lowest gear (34×28) and kept a high cadence to the top of the first step of the climb. A group of four or five riders blazed up the hill, and someone near me said, “There they go already.” I reached the top with the second group, and stayed with them during the next, shallower step of the climb, but dropped back on the third, steeper section. I rode alone across the plateau with one cyclist within reach ahead of me, but no desire on my part to put the hammer down and get onto his wheel. I kept it steady through the rollers, then took it easy the first time down the descent: sweeping right, very sharp left, a couple of ups and downs, then a steep drop into a valley with two narrow gravel patches spanning the road at the bottom. I was starting to warm up, except for my arms, which were covered by only a thin jersey and rain jacket. After a mile or so of flat terrain, I hit the second climb, consisting of a steep section, a triple set of short but steep bumps, and then a very steep section to the top. I tried to balance standing and sitting to keep my legs fresh. At this point I was caught by three riders from behind, and rode with them down the fast, fun, brake-free decline to the start/finish line. Lap time: 41:5

Lap 2: Rain continued falling. This was the only lap that I rode most of the way with other cyclists. After that, I was on my own to the finish. I tried settling into a manageable rhythm on the climbs, and my 28 cog still seemed adequate. I sat behind the other three riders across the plateau, drafting off to one side to avoid the rooster-tail of grime flying off the tire in front of me, and then took the lead on the rollers leading to the descent. I kept my momentum and my cadence high on the small upgrades, then flew down the hill faster than on the first lap. We were still together on the second climb and descent, and crossed the finish line as a small, if loosely allied, group. Lap time: 41:50

Lap 3: More rain. One of the riders in our group dropped back a bit on the climb, and the other two stopped at a car at the top of the first section, leaving me on my own. Still pedaling, I pulled off my gloves to grab my second Gu packet out my back pocket but dropped it onto the road. As I circled back to pick it up, the two guys who had stopped at the car rode by – one asked if I was okay – and I never saw them again. I picked up my gel and ate it on the move before I hit the next uphill section, then settled back into my rhythm. I think it was also at this point that I really started thinking about what I had gotten myself into, wondering whether I could make it up the hills five more times. The lap-by-lap countdown began. Lap time: 45:3

Lap 4: A bit of respite from precipitation, but the roads were still wet and wormy, and the sky remained threatening. Another climb, another gel, another descent, another climb. Already, fatigue was starting to creep into my legs as I began struggling with the 28 on the steeper grades, but I was happy to reach the halfway milestone at the end of the lap. I made my first stop at the aid station to top-up my water bottles and eat a few fig bars. The people manning the station did all the work of refilling and handing out food, but one guy questioned my decision to carry two bottles, which of course added weight to the bike. Lap time: 50:41

Lap 5: And then came the storm. The rain returned with a vengeance, falling harder than before and accompanied by high, gusty winds that made even the flat sections of the course difficult to ride. The brim of my cycling cap helped keep the lashing rain out of my eyes, except on the descents where the cold drops stung any exposed skin. It was also around this point that, due to numbness in my fingers, I had to reach across my handlebars with my right hand whenever I wanted to shift my front derailleur into the big chainring. I skipped the aid station in favor of another gel; at one point on this lap or the next, I inadvertently dropped an empty gel packet onto the ground while trying to put it into my back pocket. Not wanting to be an ungrateful guest in the park, I circled back around to pick my litter off the ground before continuing on. Lap time: 49:30.

Lap 6: Wind and rain continued, and it was around this time that I really started suffering on the steepest climbs. I remained standing until my legs started burning, then sat down and churned my way to the top, sometimes at a cadence in the low 40s. Once I sat down, there was no standing up again. This was when that lazy, pesky demon in my head who prefers comfy sofas and Doritos started asking whether it was really worth finishing, but deep down I never doubted my ability to ride 8 laps. I also figured that I would finish in about 6 hours, which was the same amount of time I would spend driving to and from the race. I wanted to make the trip worthwhile, along with earning the burger and fries I planned to eat on the way home. I made my second aid station stop at the end of the lap, grabbing a banana and a bottle of energy drink. Lap time: 53:07

Lap 7: The most difficult and slowest lap of the ride, even though the rain finally stopped and the sun started shining through the clouds. As I had during the early laps, I made an effort to admire the scenery of the park as I passed a few of the vista points, turning my head to catch glimpses of the clouds breaking over the hills. But the pretty views didn’t do much to help me negotiate the climbs, the steepest of which I tackled by tacking back and forth across the road to reduce the gradient. Even so, I suffered cramps in the muscles behind both of my knees, but I managed to keep pedaling and worked them out during the descent to the start/finish line, where I made my last aid station stop for a few fig bars before heading out on the last lap. Lap time: 55:32

Lap 8: With (very slightly) renewed energy, and with my clothes drying out and my body warming in the intermittent sun, I ticked off each climb as I topped it for last time. I took it easy on the flats and on the descents (the idea of a blowout on my front tire, which I had recently swapped from the rear wheel after having used it for weeks on the indoor trainer, had been haunting me since around Lap 6), trying to save everything for the last climb, which loomed dark and unavoidable on the horizon. I feared the return of my leg cramps, but they remained at bay during the lesser climbs. I made the last of the day’s four or five toilet stops at the outhouse at the base of the final climb, then braced myself and started up, tacking across the road as I had the lap before. No one passed me on the way up, as a few had on previous laps, spinning by on their 32s or 34s while I struggled in my 28. Up I went the first section half-standing and half-seated, then standing up the triple slopes of the second section, then standing as long as I could up the last steep obstacle until I had to sit and churn my way ever closer to the top. Just when I thought I was safe, the lurking cramps suddenly struck again, but by that point I only needed five more pedal strokes to reach the crest. Despite the pain, I forced my legs over until I was able to coast across the top. I stood and stretched my protesting muscles, and then I was free to enjoy the descent on roads that were drying out after a day of relentless rain, finally crossing the line as one of only 15 riders to complete all 8 laps. Lap time: 52:48. Overall time: 6:23:47. Overall placing: 10th of 35 (5th in the 50-54 age group).         

 

Written by latefornowhere

May 31, 2018 at 11:47 am

Getting fit and fitted for a new cycling season

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It’s been quite a while since I last owned a high-end road bike. Not that I haven’t been riding – I logged more than 4,200 miles in 2017, mostly on my sturdy old Trek 4700 hardtail mountain bike equipped with 1.5-inch city tires – but with thoughts of American-style road racing running through my head for the first time in two decades, I decided to kick off the New Year with the purchase of a Specialized Tarmac Elite.

The prospect of new cycling endeavors on a new bike also inspired me to take steps toward realizing the legendary “perfect” pedaling position, so I booked a session with bike-fit guru David Coar at Summit City Bicycles and Fitness in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

The three-hour fitting process was divided into three parts, starting with a discussion that covered everything from my background as a cyclist (East Coast crits in the 80s; So Cal cross-country mountain bike races in the 90s; occasional gran fondos and casual tours ever since), my cycling goals (a bit of masters racing, interspersed with gran fondos and centuries), and issues with pain or discomfort on the bike (none).

Part two involved a meticulous body assessment from bottom to top, during which Maharishi Dave observed my (sometimes strained) efforts to perform particular movements and stretches. He also took numerous measurements of esoteric biological nooks and crannies like foot angulation and structure (high arch on right foot), spinal flexion and curve (neutral), shoulder rotation (full range), lower extremity alignment (neutral), and IT band tightness (mild).

 

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During the third part of the fitting, I mounted my Tarmac, which had been attached to an indoor trainer, and did some pedaling under the watchful eye of David, who stopped me occasionally to take more measurements and make incremental adjustments to my position.

 

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The primary revelation of the fit process was that my femurs are unusually long, which David said made me a good candidate for a custom frame (too late for that). It also explains why, at a modest 5 feet 9 inches tall, I have always found it extraordinarily difficult to sit comfortably in airplane seats without hitting my knees on the seat in front of me.

In any case, long femurs are meant to be an advantage in cycling due to the extra leverage they afford, and it’s a fortunate condition that I share with legendary pros like Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault. In fact, David guaranteed that once my bike position was perfected, I would make the podium of every race I entered or I would get a full refund on my fit.*

(*Not really.)

The other big surprise was that I had spent years cycling with my saddle too low – way, way too low. David raised it about 5 centimeters, which at first felt horribly elevated. Meanwhile, my elongated femurs meant that my saddle had to be moved back as far as possible to align my knees with the pedal spindles, and a slightly longer left femur necessitated adjusting the fore/aft position of my left cleat to compensate.

 

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My ischial tuberosity (sit bone) measurement was unusually narrow, so we swapped out the bike’s stock saddle for the narrowest one available in the shop, allowing me to sit back where I’m supposed to be instead of sliding forward in search of a more tenable position. Finally, we shortened the stem by 1 centimeter to offset the rearward adjustment of the saddle, and we lowered the handlebar a bit to facilitate a marginally more aero position.

The day after my fit, I took a test ride on Zwift. Although I suffered from a bit of tightness in the back of my legs just below the knees, I did feel like I was able to utilize my power for a greater portion of each pedal revolution; in fact, my estimated functional threshold power (FTP) went up by 8 watts despite holding back to avoid injuring muscles that were being used in new ways. 

My legs were sore the day after the test ride – not in a bad way, but rather like the feeling of going for a run after a few weeks off. The ache receded over the next three days, and I quickly became accustomed to the dizzying heights of my readjusted saddle. With my acclimatization period coming to an end, I’m looking forward to ramping up my training and seeing the extent to which my position allows me to take advantage of my physical peculiarities.  

Now all I have to do is shave my legs and ride 2,000 miles, and I might be ready to jump into a couple of Category 5 races by May.  

 

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Photos: Austin Brooks

Written by latefornowhere

February 15, 2018 at 3:07 pm