The road cycling race season is just about to begin, and in some countries, they have already started. So today, I will show you some highly effective techniques that will help you perform better from the very first race.
In the bottom of this article you’ll find 4 Pre-season Bike Training Sessions
One of the most common arguments against interval training during the winter is the risk of peaking too early.
I’m afraid I have to disagree. If you are not competing professionally, your risk of peaking too early is shallow. Remember that your current fitness leaves significant room for improvement, and that’s why it makes sense to train longer, faster, and more frequently. You are far from peaking.
Lack of Race Speed
Finishing solid base training leaves you with a reliable aerobic engine. Your threshold power is now close to maximum, and you are getting lean and ready to enter the cycling races. Still, you might have the feeling that your legs are not prepared for the big races.
Something is missing.
Have you ever completed a solid base training left with the feeling that you still lack race speed to perform optimally?
The case is that a solid aerobic engine alone is not enough to win cycling races.
Even though threshold power is often the most critical physiological parameter, having a decent power output at threshold power is not enough. You will usually need anaerobic endurance/sprint skills and a highly trained VO2 max to compete in cycling races.
Why? Because in most cycling races, winds play an important role. When you ride behind other riders in the bunch, you may save up to 40% of power output to maintain the pace.
Thus, if you sit in the front of the peloton and work around your threshold power, all other riders can easily follow your pace as long as you ride in the flat or slightly uphills.
So if you want to make a breakaway or drop some of your worst opponents, then a steady pace at threshold power might not be enough.
Instead, you need to use your anaerobic and tactical skills to establish a breakaway.
And then afterward, return to a steady pace slightly below threshold power in your new group of riders.
To make these breakaways, you’ll need to have at least some anaerobic power to accelerate away from the peloton. It’s clear that the more aware your opponents are, the harder you will have to work to get away. Also, as you get closer to the finish line, you should expect more riders to react when you make your attempts.
You could see their awareness as a problem or your opportunity to strategical alternatives. By leveraging other riders’ impatience, you can make tactical moves that are far more likely to succeed than most solo attacks.
Also, if you stay away from the front and let the attacking rider protect you from the wind, you can relatively quickly join the attack. That way, you have a chance to join a new breakaway while saving your anaerobic power for later.
Structure is the key to successful cycling training
Even experienced and ambitious riders get surprised when they enter the first couple of races. Some of them may have increased their total training load significantly during the winter and therefore – reasonable – expect to perform better.
However, many talented riders don’t get the deserved results and honor. Because they struggle to increase the total training time and intervals, they forget to remind themselves of the importance of having a good overall structure on their training plans.
Everything else is meaningless if there is no structure on your intervals, distance training, and cycling races. Forget about exotic recovery drinks, aero wheels, carbon saddles, etc.
If there is no structure on when you train hard and when you don’t, then this is the first place to improve your performance in the long run.
The structure is the best and most effective way to increase your performance. And you don’t have to train harder.
It’s vital to notice that high-intensity intervals are not just high-intensity intervals. Since road cycling is mainly an aerobic activity, it is also clear that most of your training should target the aerobic engine.
Building a solid aerobic engine takes more time, but it only needs minimum training to keep it at a reasonable level.
Why are the first cycling races in the season so difficult?
One of the most common excuses is ‘lack of race speed.’ I agree with this cause, but I don’t think it’s exact.
Switching from group rides at 30km/hr to cycling races at 40+ km/hr is not only a question of speed, and it’s a paradigm shift from riding friendly group rides to entering a war on bikes.
Let me explain: If you haven’t included high-intensity intervals and riding in your training yet, you will very likely experience a ‘lack of race speed.’ And you will experience it the hard way.
Those riders who dominate and win these first races are typically well prepared.
They have followed their training programs for months, and they have been doing some high-intensity (anaerobic) training in the past. Anaerobic intervals provide them with ‘race speed.’
So yes, in races, you ride 10km/hr faster, but that is only a part of the explanation. The physiological and technical demands are quite different when you enter a cycling race.
So if you want to be one of those well-prepared riders when the race season opens, you have to use some of the pre-season training techniques mentioned below. Otherwise, you will be one of those riders whining about ‘lack of race speed.’
The good news for lazy riders is that you will catch up within 6 to 8 weeks if you haven’t done your anaerobic training. But, unfortunately, that’s what many cyclists experience season after season when they have entered the first ten races or so.
(Simply because their anaerobic capacity boosts participation in the cycling races.)
That also means that if you plan to peak later in the season, you don’t have to push too hard with anaerobic intervals and sprints before the season opens. But it will make your life in the peloton a bit easier, and maybe your winning chances are also better in the early part of the season.
Getting back into the road race routine can be tricky
You have to believe and have faith that your winter training was correct. Then, take things slowly and make sure the strength, conditioning, and endurance work you did during the winter transfers to the bike.
Also, remember this: everybody else is in the same boat during the first few races, and there will be general feelings of tension and uncertainty. However, during your early races, you will discover if the training you completed over the winter was enough to be competitive immediately or if you still have plenty of work to do.
Remember that it is a very long season, and it is crucial to stick to your training plans regardless of your initial results.
Riders peak at different times of the year, so don’t be discouraged if your fitness is not where you want it to be.
How to Ride Faster in the Early Part of the Race Season
1) Friendly races (Fartlek)
Making your training more similar to races is a logical step that helps you prepare for the cycling races waiting for you.
Instead of riding steady pace group rides, you should include two or three short races with a predefined distance of 5km or up. These short races give you an excellent combination of aerobic and anaerobic intervals while riding your bike at higher speeds. You will also get a sense of race tactics by including a finish line for your friendly race.
Though this training approach is an unorganized way to train compared to most of the other advice I give, it’s a very effective and inspiring way to optimize your aerobic and anaerobic systems. Well performed, these Fartlek sessions are both highly effective and motivating as pre-season workouts.
Sometimes you have to dig a little deeper into your reserves when you train, which may help you go from good to great. But, more importantly, it is a fantastic mental relief to follow the pack as they begin to race.
So remember the positive attitude and enjoy the chance to have some extra training and fun at the same time.
Remember that most cycling races are not 15-minute sub-threshold intervals. Cycling races are incredibly unpredictable, and you will need a vast repertoire of skills to master them. So spontaneous cycling races or sprints are an excellent supplement to your regular, scheduled intervals.
If you never do anything off-diary, try to make at least one interval/race/sprint this week.
2) Anaerobic intervals and sprints
The secure way to boost your anaerobic performance is through specific intervals designed for anaerobic performance. These intervals are typically shorter efforts of less than 60 seconds, and the intensity is so high and the duration so short that using a heart rate monitor for pacing makes no sense.
Even without any pacing tool, it is relatively easy to get a significant boost of your anaerobic power and endurance.
Simply by doing anaerobic intervals once or twice per week, your anaerobic capacity will increase significantly within a few weeks. It is much faster than building aerobic power, so you have an excellent chance to catch up quickly, even if you are a bit late.
One important thing that most riders are not aware of is the need for recovery between hard anaerobic intervals.
Why? If your recovery periods are too short, you will not generate sufficient high power outputs in the work periods, and your legs will perform more work through aerobic metabolism. Thus, you will not get an adequate stimulus for your anaerobic enzymes.
The most overlooked secret of winning riders is their use of tapering. If you want to make a great ride, you should make at least some kind of tapering protocol before the races you prioritize. That will keep your legs and mind fresh and help you perform much better than most opponents.
Many riders have been through heavy training, especially in the early part of the season. As a result, these riders need a few weeks of tapering regarding the overload principle before performing at peak performance.
It’s not all about boosting your anaerobic system
Winter training is often considered an essential part of your preparation for the next season. So why not also use your best weapon to improve aerobic performance?
As I mentioned previously in this article, you might choose to prioritize differently. If you spend less energy optimizing your anaerobic system now, you will be able to build an even more robust aerobic engine. And because of that, you can be even more substantial later in the season. That is always a question of priority.
Even though my 12-week winter training program forces you to tackle scheduled intervals three times per week and perform an increasing amount of training, there may still be opportunities to ride more.
Don’t be afraid to add an extra interval or a spontaneous, friendly cycling race.
Yet, it’s my gut feeling that many riders don’t prepare optimally for the season-opening. And just a slight tweak to your current training can make a nice improvement in your opening races.
Thus, I conclude that intelligent riders get an easy advantage simply by optimizing their training in the first few weeks.
VO2 Max intensity refers to your avg. Power output (Watts) in 5min test.
Please make sure to increase watts as you get stronger, and if you feel unsure, exchange one of the interval days with a performance test. That should do the trick and make an instant update of your current fitness level.
Pre-season Training Program 1 (50 min)
15 min warm-up
1 x 5 min – 80 % VO2 max
1 x 5 min – 50 % VO2 max
3 x (3+3 min) 100 / 50 % – VO2 max
7 min cooldown
Pre-season Training Program 2 (50 min)
15 min warm-up
3 x (40s + 9.20min) maximum sprint efforts
5 min cooldown
Pre-season Training Program 3
15 min warm-up
16+ x (30+30s) VO2 max
10 min cooldown
The Ultimate VO2 Max Training Session
(read more about the ultimate VO2 max workout here.)
10+ min warm-up
2+8 min VO2 Max / Threshold intensity
10 min recovery
2+8 min VO2 Max / Threshold intensity
10 min cooldown
PS. I can guarantee these intervals don’t work if you don’t try.