So if I’m not going to talk about racing in the racing blog, what on earth am I going to talk about? It certainly won’t be the history of Woolwich Cycling Club, which I have been learning all about recently thanks to some wonderful articles written by our club historian Dave Brimson. As much I could start to express my excitement and passion for this great old club’s illustrious history, particularly from a racing point of view, I’ll leave that to Dave and his treasure trove of historical artefacts and records. Suffice to say, that as I clipped in on the start line of a recent hill climb event, I heard a gentlemen on the public address system announce my name and that I was from Woolwich CC, ‘one of the oldest clubs in the country’. This gave me a feeling of great pride and honour, representing Woolwich Cycling Club with a number pinned to my back.
If not the history of the club, then what, I hear you cry, is the subject of this month’s ramblings? Will Jimmy attempt a detailed and entertaining report on all the action from the Tour de France in the vain hope that someone from a major cycling publication will notice his talent for the written word and enlist his services? After a weekend of unforeseen and relentless inebriation whilst in Yorkshire for ‘The Grandest Depart’, I’m very pleased to say that due to the most pertinent pieces of information being burned away by such excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages, this is not to be the case. However, watching this year’s Tour, with so many lead riders crashing out after months of meticulous preparation, I did start to thinking about one thing. Training.
This is an ‘issue’ which I have been struggling with since I joined Woolwich with a solid determination to become a bike racer. Fresh from completing the 2012 London to Brighton ride on a hybrid commuter bike wearing baggy three-quarter length Nike shorts and a ‘Team GB’ cycle jersey (Yay!) I didn’t have a clue what I needed to do to start getting involved with racing. Joining a club was the first obvious step. There I would surely find plenty of people who would set me on the right path. So I bought a road bike, and after some googling and emailing, (and one disappointing Saturday morning with the Dulwich), I joined this club and started doing a few rides, seeking new wisdom.
There was a mixture of people, some that in the music world you might refer to as ‘ageing rockers’, guys who’d been there and done what I was setting out to do. They shared stories and seemed pleased to see a new member with delusions of racing grandeur. But what could they offer me in terms of training tips and advice? Not an awful lot if the truth be told. And why would they? They had done their thing, and they knew how they did it, but it would obviously be a very long story to start passing on that hard earned, sacred knowledge and experience. Not exactly one for a Sunday club run. There didn’t seem to be a huge amount of guys of my own age or aspirations either. It appeared I was on my own.
I turned to the written word. I started seeking advice from what I now know to be ‘The Comic’, as well as various other publications and websites, all of which promised to get me ‘racing fit in less than six weeks’ or to ‘double my power with only half an hour a week training’, or maybe ‘ride like a pro in three easy steps’. I was like a sponge, and patterns started to form in my head:
1) One long ride a week. (a million miles-ish)
2) One medium tempo ride per week. (as fast as I could ride for an hour, traffic lights included)
3) One short high intensity ride (er, intervals maybe? Like I did when I was running as a kid?)
That seemed to be the general rule. What was a long ride? The mags and books talked extensively about Sportives and races that covered 100 miles or more (I was still working in miles back then, rather than time). 54 miles from Clapham Common to Brighton sea front was clearly just the beginning, and I was entering myself into longer and longer events. The problem was, I was on my own with training for this, because so early into a new pastime, I had very little friends or even club mates who would ever be willing to come out with me on a 100 mile bike ride. 40 or 50 gently on the weekend, yes, but 100?!?! So I did what I could, and put in lots of miles, all by myself, except for Sunday Club Runs. Then Sunday Club Runs started turning into ‘recovery rides’. I had first heard this term ‘recovery ride’ on a spoof video on YouTube entitled ‘Things Road Cyclists Say’, and while I had laughed at it, I didn’t really know what it meant. Luckily, the books and magazines came to my rescue and I figured it out. Add ‘one recovery ride per week’ to the above list. Wow, I’m so pro!
Say what you like about Strava, but in a way, it saved me. I was no longer on my own. I call it ‘facebook for cyclists’, and with each ride I did, my list of people I was following was burgeoning in line with my fitness. For the first time, I had potential riding partners who were riding at a similar level to me. There were two small problems, however: the two Fs, families and full time jobs. Depsite the miracle of Strava, the sharing of information and the revealing of roads and hills and routes where ‘KOMs’ could be sought, I still couldn’t find anyone to regularly ride with. Added to that, as Strava became more and more widely used and known, my trusty magazines started picking it apart, pointing out that the endless chase for the KOM between the traffic lights on Charing Cross Road (Southbound), would not the honed racing athlete make. My excitement at discovering this new world was soon doused down. I was still on my own. And besides, I felt a new sense of satisfaction in the knowledge that while everyone else was out busting their guts down the Charing Cross Road (and probably breaking the law whilst doing it), that I was out, by myself, yes, but ‘training properly’ (see Rule #71, The Rules, p236).
Eventually I started racing. November 2012, Hillingdon, a ‘Points Grabber’ race, my first ever race. Suddenly I was surrounded by racers. They looked immaculate, for the main part, all in their club colours with sleek helmets and matching shoes, the smell of leg embrocation wafting through the air. I didn’t yet have my club jersey, so on the face of it, I was still ‘unattached’. On my own. That race went quite well. The weather stayed dry and I stayed with the bunch, although I was nowhere near the action for the final sprint. I just didn’t have the legs, although I had spent a little time on the front of the bunch and avoided some nasty crashes. In retrospect, it was something of a baptism of fire, but it was a good start. I just needed to get fitter.
There were several guys that seemed to be in teams, all with matching kit (Dulwich Paragon aside). I wondered why I hadn’t spotted any of these in my googling. I admit, several times I have considered rooting out some of these teams, or ‘clubs’ if you prefer, and contacting them to see if I could join them thinking it would guarantee me perfect training regimes. Why couldn’t I find a fancy team to train with? Where were they all hiding anyway? Was it all a big secret that only really really good riders could be let in on? But for now I would have to continue alone, while all these other guys were out training in their posh matching kit. I stuck with Woolwich Cycling Club (and I’m very glad I did).
The frustration continued. I remember seeing someone on Strava posting a ‘Tuesday Night Chain Gang’, something to do with the Dulwich. That looked great… but I couldn’t get out on a Tuesday night, so I’d have to do my own thing in the morning. In fact, most things seemed to be happening in the evenings; chain gangs, group training sessions, spin classes, I couldn’t get to any of them. I had tried Herne Hill Velodrome on Saturdays for a while, and it was really good intense riding/training, just as the books prescribed, but then the winter arrived and sessions stopped, so again, I had to figure out my own thing. Life and the seasons get in the way of everything. Ride partners of any standard are hard to come by, and are either too fast or too slow, or too fast or too slow for what you had in mind for any given day. It had taken a while to dawn on me, and I’ve said it enough times now that you probably know what I’m about to say. If you want to train to be a racing cyclist, you have to be a big fan of your own company.
‘The Cyclist’s Training Bible’ by Joe Friel actually encourages one to train alone. It’s the fifth ‘Commandment’ in ‘The Ten Commandments of Training’: “[Thou shalt] train with groups infrequently”. It’s on page 19 of the 4th edition of the book, I won’t quote it extensively. Reading this it dawned on me that I didn’t need anyone to help make ME go faster, I just needed ME. Slower ride partners would slow me down, faster ones would wear me out. Ones that were juuuust right… Goldilocks springs to mind! The light slowly flickered until it became a dull glow that gradually shone brightly in the room of my mind labelled ‘training’. I knew that being laughed at on Strava for posting rides of me doing 16 laps of Rotherhithe on a cold, rainy Tuesday morning at 7am, or boring figures of 8 around Thamesmead while the Saturday football was on, would eventually result in one or two nods of approval. One follower started riding the same Rotherhithe loop (in between commutes and chasing a sack full of KOMs round the back streets of Welling), which certainly put a smile on my face.
I bought a heart rate monitor and learned how to use it. Finances would stop me short of a power meter, although I did join a gym JUST BECAUSE their spin studio was fully kitted out with WattBikes, which itself took things to another level. I also sought the advice of a nutritionist who helped with my diet by pointing out the amount of calories I was probably burning during the average 6 hour ride vis-à-vis what I was consuming, and that perhaps to perform better (faster, for longer) and prevent myself from wasting away into nothing, I should consider upping my rate of food consumption (I didn’t need telling twice!). Improving sleeping patterns, doing better work in the gym (at times that suited me and at a gym that suited me), and some excellent advice from certain health professionals that have been mentioned in previous blogs; I was not short of good advice and was getting better at knowing where to find it. Still, all the while, I continued plucking the training tips from the magazines here and there, ones that worked for me. I’ve experimented a lot. It’s an ongoing learning process.
The best thing of all is that I learned to listen to my body. No-one else has my body, just me. Each of us is unique, like our own little ‘Team Selfie’ that has its own needs and reacts to things in different ways. Therefore we can really only train to win on our own terms. For example, I’m good at climbing - best in the club in fact. I’m not showing off, but very few can touch me going up hills. So, going out on a hilly training ride with a big group can be frustrating for me. I either go out with a big group and forget about training, or I go out to train and go on my own. Riding in groups is a wonderful experience, an essential experience, nine times out of ten a social exercise to remind me that I’m not the only nutcase in the world that loves this cycling lark. It’s healthy to ride with friends, but friends is what they should be on such rides, not team mates. In hindsight, this is the real reason I joined (and stayed with) this club.
Very very rarely is riding in a group something I would regard as my ‘key’ training session of any particular week or phase. All the important stuff is done alone. I bet it’s the same even for all those pros. Teams are quite happy to be filmed doing a nice easy group ride in the sunshine in Tenerife, so we naturally assume they train as a team the whole time. But you can bet your bottom dollar once that bit is done, each rider does the big workout(s) of the week by themselves, (and away from the prying eyes of the media, rivals, even team mates). Imagine how much waiting around Chris Froome would have to endure if he went out on a big hills session with the rest of Team Sky. Waiting for Wiggo in the Tour was bad enough! Whether I’m the fastest guy, or the slowest, or anywhere in the middle, pro or novice, I’m better off training on my own.
So the moral of this story/blog is this: if you want to be a strong, fit bike racer, it’s not about what club you join, or how posh your skinsuit is, or how many E/1/2 dudes you ride with, or how many KOMs you have on Strava compared to all your followers. It’s about YOU. You learn how to train, in your own time and space, slowly but surely, if you’re patient, dedicated, motivated and you don’t mind your own company. So, rather than joining Flashyskinsuit CC, you might aswell join a beautiful grand old club like Woolwich Cycling Club and contribute to its current racing renaissance in whatever capacity your body and spirit dictates. You’ll have 130 years of racing history behind you.
That’s what I did anyway.
Next month I promise I’ll talk about racing… against Flashyskinsuit CC.