Toolbox: Spring Classics Workouts
April. At its mention cyclists and fans of cycling everywhere take a sharp breath of anticipation and respect. We watch and wonder at the powerful displays, the tactical bravado and heart of it all. We then go out and try to replicate those efforts in our own races. What’s the best way to prepare for your own Classic races?
By Matt McNamara
April is the perfect month to be a fan of cycling. Every Sunday there is a legendary race anticipated and ruminated over all week. Every Monday the process starts anew with the next challenging event. The battles waged across April are epic and memorable. April is also a great month to be a racing cyclist. Spring is finally on the rise and warmth once again permeates our rides. Fitness is on the rise as well in anticipation of our own classics campaign. As more and more race directors embrace the idea of creating events that utilize challenging courses to simulate the classics it is important to consider some ways to properly prepare.
Classics Course Simulation
One of the main draws of the spring classics is the terrain. Each race boasts its own unique elements, but a central tenet of all the classics is the challenge offered by the course. From bergs to pave, narrow roads to dirt tracks, the allure is unmistakable and the preparation unique. Fortunately, in every region of the world there are bad roads and off-the-beaten path loops to be explored and cultivated.
One of my favorite workouts is simply to go ride the roads you usually avoid. Break out your map, or whatever iteration you use, and look for those little squiggles that connect bigger roads, or that dead end you’ve always wondered about and see where it leads. They don’t have to be huge epic rides in the middle of nowhere (although that’s fine too!), you can just as easily create a small loop of five to ten minutes that brings all the elements together for a fresh and fun workout.
Now that you have a route or two for practice let’s put some quality in those workouts. One of the keys to success riding on dirt, cobbles, or rough pavement is to learn how to float in order to save your body undue abuse and maintain control of your bike when it wants to wander and veer every which way.
Watch the pros crossing pave, they ride in a slightly larger gear but they aren’t fighting the bike. Instead they are using their hips and legs, arms and cadence as shock absorbers.
By keeping a nice tension on the legs and chain they are able to un-weight a bit from the saddle and that allows them to float over the bumps. To get that absorption effect you have to practice a bit, so here is a good workout:
Force – Big Gear Rhythm: Warm Up for 20 – 30 minutes in zone 2, building into about 5 minutes of zone 3 tempo by the end. Similar to Muscle Endurance intervals, but at a lower cadence! Take yourself to the top of Zone 3 and do 2 or 3 x 10 minute efforts (5 min rest) in a LARGE gear at 70 – 75 RPM. You want to push a big enough gear that you are forced to use your hips, back and arms to drive the pedals, but not so big that you are laboring to do so. This workout is perfect on a slightly rough or double track road. Stay seated and focus on maintaining chain tension throughout the pedal stroke.
You can see a little bit of what I’m talking about in this Saxo Bank pre-ride video from the 2010 Paris Roubaix:
Super secret bonus – you have to keep a light, but firm, grip on the bars. Too tight and you end up fighting the bike, too loose and you risk slipping off the bars
As we’ve seen time and again, the classics usually come down to who is the strongest on a given day. I think of this as attrition training and you can improve your odds of staying at the front with some focused work. Cancellara’s demolition of the field at Roubaix and Flanders last year, and the E3 Harrelbeke this year are often cited as perfect displays of power and poise – and they are. Riding this type of effort is what makes him the best one day racer in the world, but you can emulate at least the intent of these efforts if not the absolute power. One of the best ways is to embrace the MAP to LT workout.
Maximal Aerobic Power (MAP) is, essentially, your VO2max power and represents the best power you can produce over a four to eight minute effort. Five minute power is often used as a proxy for VO2max power, so we typically use best five minute values as the starting point. Lactate Threshold power (LT) is the best possible power you can produce over a sixty minute effort (but you knew that right?). By combining these two components in a slightly modified format you will see quick results. Here is the workout:
MAP to LT: After a short and crisp warm up of 20-30 minutes averaging 75-80% of your Threshold power (yep, out the door at 75%+!), do the following 3 – 6 times: Ride the first two minutes at MAP and then immediately drop to LT power for at least ten minutes. Recover for five to eight minutes between efforts and repeat. As you get better at this workout you can add time to the LT component (up to 20 minutes or so). Don’t increase the MAP component duration as it is intended to be a solid effort, but not one that will compromise the LT effort. Be sure to re-test your MAP and LT values regularly and adjust up as needed to keep this workout moving you forward.
Super-secret bonus: At the end of the MAP segment I often have my athletes do a 5-10 second soft pedal to catch their breath before starting the LT part. I also clip a new interval for each segment so I can more accurately track my power.
The spring classics are among the highlights of any season and represent the pinnacle of one day performance. As race directors across the globe try to create similar events for their racers, it is important to develop the technical and physiological elements unique to the demands of this type of racing.
To best develop these qualities, I like to have my riders train on terrain that mimics the race course, develop their technical skills and handling by learning to ride both the float and their race attrition capacity by riding high intensity long intervals. It requires effort and focus to hone these abilities, but the cross-over benefits will serve you in every race you do, classic or not.
About Matt McNamara: Matt is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach with over 20 years of racing, coaching and team management experience. He is the founder and president of Sterling Sports Group, a performance coaching company located in Northern California. Learn more by visiting his website at www.sterlingwins.com.
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