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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.