The thin red line | A tempo ride

formentor-3Charting the emotions of a tempo ride to the Formentor lighthouse, Majorca’s best cycling route.


Dawn. Sun yawning. Sky, sea, eyes pink. I set off, legs still snoozing. Air warm, thick, already. Streets empty, beach deserted. The masts on the boats in the harbour clank and clatter, ringing in the new morning, birds waking, the roost all a tweeting, more a cacophony than a chorus.

Legs spinning reluctantly, the warm up for the climb ahead is a quaint dawdle along the beach front, eyes glued to the ever changing colour of the sea and sky, red now, almost orange, the day warming up quicker than my legs.

I turn back towards the beginning of the first climb, a challenging 6% ramp for 2 long miles. Go hard, I tell myself. A tongue out ride. You can recover on the descent that follows. Do not think of the long stretch that’s up after, that maddeningly slight uphill road that saps your mind as quick as your legs.

Cranks turning faster now, I’m ready because I have to be. The base of the climb is upon me. Click. A change of gear and away I go. Click, a change of mindset, a focus only on one thing. Go hard. As hard as you can. Tongue out.

Inevitability catches me at the first bend and I’m paying for my quick start. Heart pounding, chest heaving. Legs? I cannot think of them for they must answer the call of duty without question.

Slipping up and down the gears as the gradient changes, I catapult myself around the tight hairpins, measuring my effort against the thin red line that is my threshold.

Formentor lighthouse ride

A brief thought. A crack. If I stop pedalling nobody will know. I will know, snaps back my inner chimp, its hands tight against my throat. On I push.

A long drag of up and up and up and yet more up. I no longer remember where the climb ends. I exist only to keep riding hard. Summit in sight, I’m tempted to stand but remember this is just the beginning of a long ride and so I simply change down a gear and up my cadence.

Summit crested, I’m relieved to feel the road no longer travels up. Joy. Christmas but with lactic acid as a gift. First climb conquered, my legs welcome the immediate downhill but fail to comprehend why they are still spinning.

Don’t ease up now, you’ve done so well. Guilt kicks in whenever I stop pedalling. Must not waste all of the hard work. I kick again, racing downhill on the quiet roads, slicing through corners at great speed and even greater risk.

Heart barely recovered I hit the long uphill I have been dreading, a gruelling stretch of straight road that is merciless on the mind. Will this ever end? Up ahead a shadow on the horizon. A target. Legs a little heavy from my previous exertion, I ignore their pleas and begin the chase.


I see not the forest, I smell not the pine. All I see is the gap between me and the rider ahead. Like an old friend you knew in a former life, the distance between us doesn’t seem to change no matter how much time we spend together. My head goes down.

Head up. He’s closer now. He cracks when the gradient increases and just like that he loses a race he didn’t know he was riding. Hola, I say in my best imitation Spanish as I pass, hasta la vista, I think, my action hero inner monologue as bad as my Spanish.

I see not the sea nor the beautiful vistas all around. Not with the shadow looming behind me, the rider I’ve just passed on my tail, so close I imagine I hear him breathing.

The road continues to climb and I spin away, heart rate rising above my thin red line. Don’t blow. Not now. A glance over my shoulder, the rider has gone but not my fear. On I push.

The road up and down now, up and down. My heart knocks loud as it pounds into my chest, the debt collector calling in his dues. Flashes of the world around me. Sea. Sun. Rocks. Hairpin. Goat.


I’ve been riding for a lifetime and I’m near death. Yet I sense the end of the cape is near. Sea surrounds me. Or am I dizzy and my world is spinning? One last push but my legs no longer respond. We stop here, my legs seem to say, go on alone if you like, you god damn hero.

Overcooked with a mile to go, the pain is excruciating as I struggle to maintain my speed, my cadence and the will to continue. The thin red line is now a noose from which my ride hangs.

It’s a fight now, teeth gritted, muscles tightening, lungs bursting. Mind versus the legs, legs versus the bike, bike versus the road. The end in sight, I stand for the first time to power over a climb but I’m back in the saddle before I can hear the imaginary commentator get excited about a rider dancing on the pedals. I’m not dancing, I’m dying.

One final climb remains. My gears disappear quicker than the road. Mashing my granny gear, I slump over the line. In the distance the slow clap of the unknown, a passer-by cheering or taunting this mess of a rider I cannot be sure.

Stationary, my legs continue to move, trembling. I shake all over and do my best to ignore that feeling deep in my stomach. I do not want to see my morning coffee again.

What a ride. Only when we forget to exist do we truly live.

I do not smile. I do not thump the air triumphantly, I do not whoop nor holler. I simply turn around and continue back the way I came. Just a lot slower.


The return

formentor-1The return is almost as painful as the ride out. Legs empty they can barely turn the cranks. This was the plan. Now was the time to enjoy the beauty of the ride.

My chest and heart eventually find peace, a rhythm approaching normal but my legs are gone, long gone, laid down on the road upon which I now return.

The road ahead is unfamiliar even though I rode it but minutes ago, as if someone has rebuilt it, adding extra climbs and turns, a new Scaletrix course created right before my very eyes.

Legs dead, my mind must get me home. I play out commentary in my head. I am Chris Froome spinning up a climb. I am Rocky Balboa racing ahead of the children.

More than once I imagine myself on the turbo in my hallway, this despite my beautiful surrounds. Being stationary in my head is all I can do to keep on moving. Recalling turbo drills focuses my mind on technique, on turning the pedals as efficiently as I can. Spinning away in my hallway the road no longer seems to climb.

The ride almost over, I coast down the last hill which earlier had been the first. Tongue out, this time I’m smiling as I admire the view and reflect on the road and the ride behind me.

Rides that hurt today will tomorrow leave us aching for more. These are the rides I live for.


The Formentor lighthouse ride on Strava

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Enjoy the view, courtesy of @GeoffRich

Enjoy the view, courtesy of @GeoffRich

A return to Majorca – Flat rides, hard rides

majorca-return-2Returning to ride in Majorca was a little like meeting an old friend. We knew one another’s ways, we respected the other yet said little, mutual appreciation unspoken.

For Majorca is a cyclist’s friend, smooth roads, manageable mountains, rolling hills, billions of hairpins, long coastal roads, picturesque rides through orange groves and verdant valleys. Oh and did I mention the weather? Sun, and lots of it.

I’ve already written a love letter to cycling in Majorca and thus it is no surprise I was eager to return. The plan this time was a little more relaxed. No 80 mile beast rides up mountain after mountain for I no longer needed to tick off each of the famous climbs. Besides, I’d not really prepared to ride such herculean efforts due to my recent flirtation with a training plan focused on power over endurance.

Sa Calobra climb – The serpent bites

majorca-return-3Day one, legs not quite fresh but as good as they were going to be, I wanted to enjoy one of Europe’s best cycling roads for photographers and the most famous climb on the rock. Sa Calobra. A road with more twists than a Hitchcock wet dream.

After spinning gently up the dull climb of Coll de Feminia, the snake was next. The child like joy of descending this fantasy road was written large across my face, my grin wider than my handlebars. At the base of the climb swimmers enjoyed the clear cool and unbelievably turquoise waters of an inviting Mediterranean. The swimmers had no idea of the suffering I was about to endure. Neither did I.

The last time I rode Sa Calobra full gas I remember it being over in no time. Too easy almost. Not this time. How I laughed when I first picked up my hire bike and changed into the 32 rear sprocket. How I needed the extra gear on this climb.

The ascent this time was hot and busy. I had arrived late. Coaches everywhere, stalking every hairpin. The sun so strong its rays pounded me into the tarmac and each torturous twist up this climb seemed to last forever. My legs and lungs reproached me for not preparing for such long rides, distracted as I was with my new found hell of intervals. Base miles cannot be neglected, so goes the old adage.

Yet all the pain in the world cannot take away from this wondrous climb. How to explain it? It’s not really the view. Well, actually it is the view. Not of the sea, not of the mountains but of the road itself. Even though you’re riding this asphalt snake you still can’t quite believe it is real. Loop after loop, hairpin after hairpin, you, the cyclist, has died and gone to climbing heaven.

Beast tamed, or at least, beast having chewed me up and spat me out, I descended via Coll de sa Batalla, a great winding climb that allows you to slice through the corners at speed. Cycling in the Alps maybe majestic but riding in Majorca is so much more fun. Especially when you can go for a post-ride swim in the lovely cool sea. All of a sudden you’re a pro taking an ice bath, of sorts. Only with more paddling.

Sa Calobra ride and route Strava and GPX

Flat and easy rides in Majorca

majorca-return-11Wisely I’d planned a couple of flat days to follow my struggle with the snake, for I knew that a) my legs would be mash (they were) and b) I wanted to discover more of the island (I did!).

Day two took me to the short climb of Ermita de Betlem via the flatlands of Alcudia, Can Picafort and Arta. The short climb was great, very different to the mountains, winding through a valley on a road that leads you to a monastery and little else.

Despite the appearance of a good looking route along the coast, the ride to the climb was dull and a little demoralising, long flat roads with imperceptible inclines and busy with traffic. A route to recommend for time triallests only.

Ermita de Betlem via Arta ride and route Strava and GPX

Day 3 and my weary legs were not quite ready for anything, not even a zone 1 scenic discovery of the island’s innards. Picturesque towns like Petra, Sineu and Lulbi awaited. Much to my amazement storms and big rain was forecast for the day. Rain, in Majorca?

Out early, the thick black sky heaved with its cargo. A defiant beam or two of yellow from the sunrise, the turbulent clouds chasing me along the coastal ride, the sky and sea twinkling black and gold.

Astoundingly I avoided rain all morning even though I was surrounded by rain clouds the entire ride. The only drops to hit me were from the roads rather than the sky. The wet tarmac was treacherous, greasy, and so I rode like a deer on ice, avoiding a tumble unlike many unfortunate others. Home, the heavens above sensed I was done and promptly emptied. A satisfying feeling, for it is rare the cyclist cheats the weather gods.

A great half century ride but I would recommend avoiding the detour via Alcudia and instead heading into the isle’s innards to explore more of the lovely little villages.

Petra, Sineu and Lulbi route and ride – Strava and GPX

Back to the mountains

A terrifying day. My legs having abandoned me, I gladly abandoned the bike and joined the dark side, or at least, the shade of a hire car.

A spontaneous decision to hire a car seemed like a good idea at the time but didn’t consider the terror of driving around the wicked hairpins of Sa Calobra with huge coaches swinging themselves at you. My legs were rested but not my heart. Not recommended.

Formentor lighthouse ride

formentor-1The best ride in Majorca. Sure, the Sa Calobra is epic in all senses of the word, yet as a ride, the short journey to the Formentor lighthouse offers much more. Why?

  • Varied terrain. I’m not a huge fan of grinding out or spinning up a huge climb. I like variety, a bit of up and down, a change of pace, a little respite.
  • Proximity. Unlike the serpent that is the Calobra, there’s no huffing and puffing up a mountain or along horrible roads before you get to the ride concerned. Staying in Puerto Pollensa, the ride to the lighthouse is on your doorstep.
  • Sunrise and sunset. This is the time to ride the Formentor route, stunning skies and empty roads, slicing through the corners is pure pleasure. There’s no competing with huge coaches to get around hairpins or queuing behind traffic.
  • The views. Formentor views beat those of the Calobra every time. Being surrounded by the sea makes for some great photo’s especially if the sky is red or pink or purple.
  • A manageable sprint. You can easily ride the Formentor there and back in a couple of hours. I love to sprint there and amble back. The amble back is not out of choice but because I’ve laid everything on the road on the way there!
  • New road surface. Since I last rode the Formentor the road has been resurfaced making this special ride even better.

An upcoming blog post will describe this ride in a little more detail. All I will say now is, as with most Majorcan tourist roads, ride it early or late to avoid the masses of traffic.

Formentor lighthouse route and rideStrava and GPX

Should I go cycling in Majorca?

majorca-return-10Of course. Everything is easy but the rides! Hire a bike and get a cheap hotel. Done! You can even refuel fairly cheaply at the less fancy restaurants or better still stay on your sea view balcony with a rotisserie chicken and hot spuds from the supermarket. And a lovely Rioja of course. Perfect.

You can read more about the best routes and climbs in Majorca, when to go, where to stay and how to get to the outdoor velodrome in my original blog post. Feel free to ask any questions below the line.

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Strava premium training plans – review

Strava badgesHello, my name is Human Cyclist and I am a cycle training addict. I enjoy abusing my body nearly every day. I cannot get enough. Be it the highs of climbing repeats, the adrenaline of power intervals or the rush of speed intervals.

Tired of the regular Sunday ride, I recently turned to the dark side of cycling to follow a proper training plan. No more cycling as I please, where I wanted, when I wanted. Now I truly was at the mercy of my addiction. What can I say? It’s a love-hate thing.

My first proper cycling plan

In my last blog I wrote of how I turned from a casual cyclist to a er, proper cyclist i.e. I was now in training for real. Magic eh? Training for what you may ask? Nothing in particular but to ride faster.

The coach in me tuts, for that’s an objective rather than a goal. Still, it’s all I have right now. Next year may well bring competitive cycling my way. Whisper it quietly, I may even join a local cycle club.

So, craving improvement or at least a shift from my routine of one big ride a week followed by a long bout of fatigue, I knew change was required. My once weekly Sunday high tempo rides were enjoyable but detrimental to my progress.

With great knowledge comes great change. Excited, I decided to jump straight into the deep end. Having recently signed up to Strava Premium, I decided it was time to get my money’s worth by beginning one of the Strava Premium training plans.

Sure, I could (and probably should) have continued reading Joe Friel’s excellent Training Bible to design my own cycling plan, but hey, I’m a slow reader and with autumn looming, the sun weakens by the day. The Strava training plan seemed like a good taster for the wicked world of cycling workouts.

Strava be my coach

Strava memeOne of the Strava training plans immediately caught my eye – Three Minute Hill Climb. Just my cup of tea. Or bidon of electrolyte, if you will. A lot of what I enjoy about riding involves powering up short steep hills as fast as possible. So with autumn here, this was perfect timing for my usual hill climb season.

So are Strava training plans any good? Having just completed the full four weeks, I have to say I have been impressed with the training plan which provides:

  • Overall view of the four week plan
  • Easy to understand terminology
  • A mini glossary to help you understand words like Power Intervals and Steady State Sprints, along with the required intensities
  • Time guidelines for each session and engaging commentary
  • Specific tips from different real life coaches, so it feels like the personal touch and adds a little motivation
  • Best of all: daily emails with your workout for the following day plus some extra special words from your coaches. I cannot tell you how much I looked forward to the emails (if not the interval sessions themselves)!

All of the above make the training plan simple to understand as well as incredibly engaging. For the first time in a long time I was excited to ride my bike again even though I knew a world of pain awaited!

That’s not to say Strava training plans are essential or even for you. I’d say they require a fair amount of base fitness before attempting. I certainly wouldn’t attempt one of these without plenty of miles in the legs. Intervals are hard and you potentially risk injury if you attack max intervals without base fitness.

It’s also worth noting that the training plans are not custom to you. Whilst you can set the number of hours you want to train, these training plans are not your personal coach and cannot possibly know enough about you to design a bespoke training plan. Yet they’re a great introduction into the world of structured training.

It’s true you can create your own or find very similar training programs elsewhere on the internet for free. Strava merely packages them up nicely and makes the whole process very easy, great if you are already a premium member.

Not a premium member? Sign up for a month and try a plan before committing to a full year’s membership, which is relatively cheap when you consider the price of a sportive. The training feature is a nice bonus of being a premium member (more on the questionable value of Strava Premium another time).

If you are looking for a more complete online training plan then something like the slightly more expensive TrainerRoad might be better, which I’m sure I’ll be testing myself at some point over the winter because it looks a significant step up from the basic plans offered by Strava.

Anyhow, back to Strava training plans. The daily training emails provide you with the motivation to get out and follow a structured ride, which is as challenging as the intervals themselves if you are used to riding at the mercy of your own whim, as I was.

Although the workouts are designed to make you quicker for a particular segment e.g. 3 minute hill climb, 60 minute hill climb etc, they are still great ways to improve your riding, whether that’s sprinting, riding at tempo or hill climbing. The basic principles of training remain. Stress your muscles, rest your muscles, improve. A training plan merely provides the structure.

Sticking to the plan

My kind of race. To the bottom of the glass. Training plans are not for everyone. This we can all agree. To some they take the fun out of cycling yet to others they are a way to improve. For me, they’ve been both fun and improving although the sprint interval sessions quickly lost their appeal! Hell on wheels.

Strava makes the planning side of things very easy so your challenge becomes sticking to the plan. Life is unpredictable and we all have different constraints, mostly around the amount of time we have available.

This is the first thing to consider when picking a plan. My plan was designed for up to 7 hours a week and had relatively short rides as there’s no real endurance required to ride a 3 minute hill. That said my plan still has two short endurance rides a week to maintain a base fitness and stamina.

It’s important to remember the training plans are designed to be flexible and work around you rather than the other way around. There’s five active days with two days of complete rest for each of the four weeks. In reality, of the five active days only three are high tempo. This means you can juggle the days around a little if need be.

The most important part of the plan is to commit 100% to the intervals. If you can’t ride at the intensity required then you are too tired for the session and should stop rather than continue. Quality over quantity as always. You should also take the initial Field Test, a basic fitness test which you will use as a benchmark to gauge your efforts and also your progress.

The rest days are also vital. The Strava workouts are designed to replace not supplement your usual riding although the plans do allow you to ride as you wish each Sunday so long as you don’t overdo it.

The structured training has released me from the grip of always riding hard. It’s like being back at school. The timetable is balanced, working you hard one day, double maths (sprints), followed by religious education the next day (endurance rides).

How to make the most of the plan

Flying. You wear Lycra. You are superman. It’s no great surprise I’m a fan of the Strava training plans which rely heavily on Carmichael Training Systems, the man behind the popular Time Crunched Cyclist training books (and whisper it, former Lance Armstrong coach).

Professionally designed the plans may be yet there’s a lot of room for improvement. How about a drag and drop feature to move workouts around during a week when you are busy? You should also be able to download the plans straight to your device as a workout file or at least create the workouts using Strava, as you can on Garmin Connect. Finally, I’ve found a use for Garmin Connect!

Do you need a Garmin device or equivalent for these plans? No, but ideally you will have a way to measure your heart rate. A training device such as a Garmin or a training app will also help, with a countdown timer and noise to indicate when you are not riding in the designated zone. You will come to fear and need that countdown timer more than you may like!

You can also do the same without tech. Find a familiar hill or stretch of road that you know how long it takes to complete and voila, you have a workout you can ride. Just make sure it is traffic free. Nobody has said ‘Died doing the thing he loved’ when thinking of somebody who meets grief in an interval session.

How about a power meter, do I need a power meter to train? Ideally yes. Measuring power outputs is the most reliable way to train yet power meters are expensive. I don’t have one and so use a combination of heart rate zones and perceived exertion to complete my workouts. The later is actually the better indicator if you have been riding for a few years.

Heart rates can lag effort, so when attempting interval one when your body isn’t quite warmed up, you may go full gas whilst your heart rate remains relatively low. Don’t worry, you know when you are working hard, and when you are not. We can only cheat ourselves!

Your heart rate is an unreliable measure of effort because a) your heart takes time to warm up, b) it beats faster or slower depending on your general fitness and fatigue levels. That said, they are a useful guide, which along with your own estimates of exertion, will lead to good workouts.

This is where perceived exertion comes to the fore. More experienced riders soon come to understand their bodies and how hard they are working on a scale of 1-10.

Planning training workouts using Garmin Connect

I’ve been using Garmin Connect ever since I bought my Garmin four years ago. Back then Connect was rubbish. Sadly the same is true today. Even with the latest half-baked user interface, Garmin Connect fails to impress. I often wonder what the program is for when you have the likes of Strava. I only persist with Connect because that’s where all of my rides have been uploaded since I began charting my efforts. It’s storage essentially.

That is until I wanted to create a training workout that I could use with my Garmin Edge 800. Connect allows you to quickly set up intervals and repeats, with desired targets such as time, distance, heart rate, power, speed and cadence. You can also set the number of repeats you need and then simply send the workout to your device.

Hey presto, you’ve got yourself a workout planned, a robo-coach to make sure your interval sessions are done according to plan. You can also add each workout to the calendar in Garmin so you can plan your week or month, all things that Strava should be doing considering you’re paying them for a premium service.

Using Garmin Connect I plan all of my workouts for the week ahead and send them to my Edge. This combined with the daily email alerts from Strava reduce my options for making excuses and skipping sessions because the plan is so much easier to follow.

I imagine, or perhaps hope, that Strava will develop more useful functionality, including a workout review which would show you how closely you matched your intended workout (something rivals like TrainerRoad are already doing). Until then, Garmin Connect is free to use and creating a workout is very easy.

Premium plan complete

We come in peaceEnough of the technical crap, did the plan work? How was it?

Excellent. I have enjoyed (almost) every session. I loved the variety and the daily challenge, as well as the planned rests days! It was nice to know my training was structured and only towards the end of the four week plan did I feel tired, as the plan was designed.

That said, the plan is not perfect. There can be no one size fits all training plan that works for everyone. We’re all very different genetically and more so when you add in variables such as fitness, tiredness, stress, diet, etc. The plan was a little too intense for me in week three, when I pushed myself to complete two 100% intervals in two days. With hindsight I would have spaced these out with a least one easy day in the middle of them.

Yeah, that’s all very well and good, but did I beat my segment time? No, although I did try! Beating my segment PR was not the primary motivation for testing out the training plan. First and foremost my objective was to train differently and stop overtraining, which I am very happy to say I managed.

Yet I certainly had a segment in mind throughout the training. My inner chimp would have it no other way. A local hill climb called Swain’s Lane where I’m already 15th on a leaderboard of over 5,400. I knew improving would be difficult and probably a matter of seconds. In two years I’d improved my time by a single second and that was with a mighty tailwind or two!

When the time came for my PR attempt I almost didn’t attempt it because I was prioritizing recovery for an impending trip to Majorca. The cycling holiday was more important than the segment yet I awoke early and a cup of coffee later I found myself watching highlights of this year’s great Tour de France, which motivated me to go out for a er, spin (i.e. full on segment attempt).

I was a fair way short of my PB yet I was happy with my segment time, considering a) I had cut my tapering short due to a date with an airport and, perhaps more significantly, b) the training plan couldn’t plan for the headwind I had on the climb rather than the usual monster tailwind I patiently await when attempting hill climb personal records on Strava.

Final thoughts

I’ve learnt a lot about myself over the four weeks. What my body can and cannot handle. I’ve lost weight. I also confirmed what I suspected about turbo training being pretty darned ugly but less so than London’s roads, which are no place for intervals. Oh, and I also discovered my max HR is actually 3 bpm higher than I’ve ever managed to get it all these years. Quite something, thanks turbo trainer!

The Strava training plan is a great simple introduction into the world of online training. That said, I can already feel the pull of the feature packed but slightly more expensive TrainerRoad at some point.

Until then, it’s fun time and a return to cycling proper and also to the wondrous cycling paradise that is Majorca. This will be followed by some rest before the turbo trainer and I meet again in a dark and lonesome hallway. And yes, I’ll be back Swains Lane, you can count on it.

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Cycle training proper – Hello intervals

Cycle trainingA confession. I’ve been lying to you. To myself. All these years I’ve not been cycle training. I was just… riding. Riding hard for sure, too hard. Yet this is not training. This is idiocy. A recipe for burnout and overtraining.

Deep down I knew this, that’s why I used quote marks when using the word. ‘Training’, I wrote, trying to give my life rides definition, meaning. Not that I needed to. Fun and enjoyment are reasons enough yet the inner chimp does not understand such concepts.

Riding hard is not training

How I used to train

How I used to train

Regular readers will know I talk about being tired a fair bit. They knew before I knew that I was simply overtraining. It certainly wasn’t my hedonistic lifestyle.

With my leisure time limited, my rides had regressed from a couple of ‘training’ rides a week to one very hard ride every Sunday. Lots of miles, lots of all out efforts, riding until I could barely pedal any more. Training, I told myself. You must hurt to improve. Then I would rest for a week, for I knew the importance of rest and recovery (!), before repeating the process the following week. Burnout ensued.

Cycle training confused me

Cycle workout

Meaningful graph or drawing of a 4 year old?

Cycle training proper can be intimidating. Even the lingo is hard work. Never mind the intervals, just figuring out what the hell a training program is talking about is difficult enough. For example:

“Sample workout: BT: WU 20 min easy spinning at HRZ 1 Hungarian set 15 min HRZ 2 10 min HRZ 3 5 min HRZ 4 5 min HRZ 5a 10 min HRZ 3 15 in HRZ 2 in between intervals, ride 3-5 min in HRZ 1 CD 1h30 of easy riding in HRZ 1-2.”

Sure, I could furrow my brow and spend time figuring this out but is that really what I wanted to do? Bike riding is meant to be fun. Easy. So it was I eschewed jargon filled training plans in favour of doing what the hell I like doing. Which was fun until I rode myself into the ground. Riding with heavy legs is no fun at all.

Besides, with three straight years of the same pattern, I was beginning to get a little bored. Sure I rode and explored some wonderful places. Scotland. Wales. The French Alps. Surrey Hills. Yet I’d lost my zip, my panache. I was no longer dancing on the pedals but stamping on them in desperation.

Blame it on Strava

Back when I was riding twice a week, it was a simple combination of a short mid-week interval session followed by mild tempo ride on a Sunday. Then I found Strava and my inner chimp wanted to beat my PBs on every hill climb I came across. So it was my Sunday endurance rides began to include more and more hills that I would race up full gas. I had become a Strava slave.

To begin with my times improved but they soon stagnated. More worryingly I was no longer improving as a rider. Something had to be done. Something drastic. Cue melodramatic music.

Cycle training for real

Turbo trainer session

Is this even cycling?

When I’m not cycling, I’m usually thinking about cycling. So it was one rest day when I began looking for reasons why I was always tired. Mental stress was where I pointed the finger. Whilst this certainly has played a role in my fatigue, even then I knew there was something more fundamental happening.

Before I knew it I had returned to look at the confusing training plans once more. This time though I didn’t go cross-eyed when reading the lingo rather I dug deeper, searching for answers. This led me to Joe Friel’s blog and ultimately, to his highly acclaimed book, The Cyclist’s Training Bible.

The title of the first review on Amazon pretty much sums up this training book, as well as making me smile: “Not just for the scary people”. A brilliant critique.

The book encourages you to become your own cycling coach. Perfect for somebody like me who thinks he knows it all. Now, with the risk of this blog becoming a series of cycle workouts (it won’t, promise!), let me share with you some basics.

“Advice is what we ask for when we already know the answer but wish we didn’t.”
Erica Jong

The first few chapters of Friel’s training book focus on the basic foundations of training. Enter the words: form, fatigue, fitness and intensity. Perhaps the most illuminating for me was ‘workload’. How hard was I working each week?

Calculate your training workload

Numbers + Cycling = Heaven.

Numbers + Cycling = Heaven.

Before I knew it, a spreadsheet (I love spreadsheets!) was open and I was entering the time I had spent riding in each heart rate zone on my weekly rides. With no money to lavish on a power meter to measure wattage, heart rate (HR) is the next best training indicator albeit not perfect as your HR will lag behind effort and be influenced by tiredness, the weather, time of day and so forth.

A pattern soon emerged and confirmed what I already knew. Not only was I overworking on each ride, I was doing so on a grand scale. On average, 40% of my ride time was spent in either zone 4 or 5. A staggering 70% of each and every ride was spent in zone 3 or above.

This startled me, even though my legs had been trying to tell me as much for many a month. Most training plans recommend a maximum of 20-25% of your ride is spent at high intensity levels, with perhaps one big effort a month. Yet here I was at almost double that. Every week. In one ride.

I’m still reading the earlier chapters of Friel’s book, not because they are difficult to understand but because I’m applying the knowledge as I go and also reading around the subject elsewhere. At times it’s like being back at school and learning a new language yet it’s a good education for the cyclist who rides to go faster.

Strava Premium fitness, freshness and form

After calculating the workload for all of my rides since January, I was keen to get some extra validation and so I signed up to become a Strava premium member, enabling me to compare my calculations for workload with those from Stava’s useful premium tools.

My numbers, as with Strava’s, were also broken down into form, freshness and fitness. Were the calculations the same? No. Did they follow the same pattern? Yes. This is the important thing to note – the patterns not the absolute numbers, for the latter mean nothing. The numbers are merely an index, showing you when you are tired, fit and ‘on form’.

Even then they are a guide and should never be taken as absolutes, for you know your body better than any spreadsheet ever can. Yet these lines have given me structure and perspective, they’ve caused me to take a step back and look at myself from the outside-in, as you would another person. And so it was I bought myself a t-shirt with the word ‘Coach’ emblazoned across the chest.

A different way to cycle

Stay motivated

Stay motivated

So where does all of this self-assessment leave me? It means change, great change. New challenges and a very different way of riding. The big Sunday rides are no more (for now) and instead I’ve taken on a training plan full of the exotic with rides such as endurance miles, power intervals, sprints intervals, climbing intervals and rest days.

Two weeks in and I’ve logged ten rides (compared to the usual two!), building up more miles, more time and more climbing than the majority of my big Sunday rides. Thanks coach! This is all well and good but how do I feel?

The first week I felt amazing. A little tired, sure, as the training program said I would be, but my fatigue was nowhere near the levels I usually experience following a big Sunday ride. With my workload spread out over the week my body has been recovering better and dead legs has become a thing of the past.

The structured training means I’m also happy to spend more time cycling at lower intensities because my inner chimp is satisfied with the many intervals I’ve already completed. As the intervals are also spread across the week, they are also of a better quality, meaning more time spent at the highest intensities without dead legs the next day (or the rest of the week!).

Everything in moderation

Yet old habits die hard. A training plan cannot quell my inner chimp within the space of just a week. Week two and illness has struck. A mild cold, my first in two years. A sure sign of overdoing things, of my body not being used to this sudden explosion of effort. Whilst the training plan spreads the workload over the week, it does mean extra effort to be cycling five days out of seven (in addition to the cycle commute).

With the temperatures turning this week and plenty of rain, I have been overexposed to bad weather whilst still dressed in my thin summer layers. Illness was an inevitability. I have also realised pretty quickly that my training program is unsustainable. I cycle in London, so finding quiet roads suitable for intervals is just as much a challenge as the intervals themselves. This means I need to turn to the dark side. Yes, that’s right, I need to purchase an evil turbo trainer. Wish me luck.

Cycle workouts pros and cons

The good

  • Structure. No more smashing up every hill or racing every rider who rides past for you are riding to a plan
  • A balanced plan. Intervals, endurance and rest help balance your week, your fitness and most importantly, your fatigue
  • Variety. There comes a limit to how many times you can plod around the same country lanes at the same speeds every week. The same can be said of intervals but it’s great to mix it all up with different intensities and durations
  • Improvement. I have little doubt I will be a better ride in four weeks time. If only briefly
  • Ride hard, rest hard. I love cycling at speed. I love resting. What’s not to like?
  • Spreadsheets. Data is one of the reasons I love cycling. The numbers behind the rides fascinate me. Many training software programs will do the hard work for you nowadays, such as Strava Premium or Training Peaks or Golden Cheetah. This leaves you with a few line charts to understand!

The not so good

  • Time. Finding the time to get out five a days a week has been challenging, especially as the nights get darker, colder and wetter. The initial effort to go out for a ride after a long day at work is tough but always rewarding. The plan also takes up a little off the bike time too as you need to program your workouts and plan your week.
  • Weather dependent. It’s no secret I don’t like riding in the rain, so maintaining a training plan in inclement weather will be difficult without some dreaded indoor cycling
  • Your definition of fun may not be riding as fast and as hard as you can for 2 minutes followed by 2 minutes of rest. Repeated seven times! Hell, it even stretches the very definition of cycling! I think you either love intervals or hate them.
  • City streets and intervals don’t mix too well. My training plan says find a quiet five minute climb for some hill climb intervals. After work. In rush hour. London laughs in your face.
  • Turbo training. You either love it or hate it apparently. I’m yet to find out but watch this space!
  • More clothes! I don’t own too many pieces of cycling kit so found myself running short when needing to cycle 5 days out of 7. Recycling cycling kit after intervals ain’t pretty.
  • The spreadsheets. What on earth have they got to do with cycling?!
  • Sustainability. There is no way I can keep up high intensity training plans like the one I’m on now for longer than a month. Plan to peak, rest and build endurance accordingly.
  • Discipline. Bucket loads of the stuff. Not only to do the ride but to do it properly and resist the temptation to overdo it, to not commit to it, or to get distracted by other cyclists and go chasing after them like a dog chasing after a ball. Let them overtake you, you are doing your thing remember!
  • Fitness first. I wouldn’t recommend a high intensity training plan to somebody just beginning cycling. Without base fitness, intervals can cause injury. Improvement as a beginner cyclist is easy to come by without all this mumbo jumbo. That will come later. It has taken me over three years to get to this point!

Final thoughts

De-training impact

I recognise only the couch

What a revelation! Sure, it’s early days and I’ve still a lot to learn with just two weeks under my belt. A structured training plan has certainly made a difference. It’s a month long plan so we’ll see how I get on, watch out for an update here in a few weeks time.

The blog may go a little training focused in the meantime, with a brief look at training plans, turbo riding and anything else that excites me in this new world of discovery. Or I’ll burnout and return to the good old Sunday rides!

Some of you will be reading this with a smile, thinking, ha, how long did it take him to get to grips with the basic fundamentals of cycle training?! Others will be thinking, ha, good luck mate, not for me. And the final group may just be thinking, why not? As I always say, ride whichever way you want, because life is too short not to have fun. For me right now, intervals are fun. How long it lasts, who knows, but I’m going to enjoy it whilst I can.

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