By John Thomas, 8th October 2018
To have a goal for 2018 of riding competitively up a mountain for about 4 hours at the end of October has certainly created some changes to my normal yearly routine. Those folks who know me well are used to the non cycling version of me, ‘October John’, who emerges from ‘Cycling John’ every autumn as I basically hang the bike up at the end of the summer, let my hair down, have a few drinks, eat what I like and turn back into the person I was before I discovered road cycling in 2005. I always look forward to being October John, a healthy interlude (for the mind at least) before winter sets in, followed by around Christmas, the pangs of needing to ride the bike again in readiness for spring.
It’s a cycle I go through each year, a good one, one that gives me some down time from my cycling passion and helps me stay hungry for more when I resume.
This year there is no October John, there will most certainly be a November John, his stint will begin on the evening of October 26th after I complete the Taiwan KOM!
Through September I typically ride in the Dolomites and Sardinia on our Alpine Cadence tours and I’m usually already gently transitioning into October John. No more races to worry about, a few Moretti and Ichnusa beers help me get a little bit bigger and happier as I round off the season. This September is different, for the first time ever since I took up cycling I’m actually thinking about what I eat and drink in an effort to stay in good condition for Taiwan. I love the racing aspect of cycling and I love to do well. All the events I’ve done in previous years have been in the spring and summer. The riding I do as an Alpine Cadence guide means I’m in pretty good condition from May through to September simply by the riding I do. I naturally come down to a ‘race weight’ of around 66kg in late May and it seems to stay that way through the summer as I ride and race enough to not have to worry too much about what I eat and drink. Typically in September my extra beers and less volume of riding takes me up a couple of kilos.
I need and want to go to Taiwan strong and light. The strong bit is probably the easy bit, staying light until the end of October needs a definite effort. I’ve certainly not got obsessed with the eating thing but since the middle of the summer I’ve drunk less alcohol than I normally would and taken more notice of what I eat. I am a binge eater and drinker normally, I have a sweet tooth and my usual eating and drinking habits would probably cause outrage to many of the people who I race with who I suspect generally look after themselves a bit more carefully than I do! This summer I’ve been heading to the fridge as per normal but stopping for a moment and more often than not grabbing for the San Pellegrino in place of the chocolate. I read somewhere that fizzy water is the pros choice to fill themselves up a bit and keep the weight off. Not sure if it’s true but it’s working for me!
I’ve also cut down on carbs. I typically consume lots of them, perhaps more than I need. in recent months I’ve tended to go for a bit more protein and moderating the carb intake. Certainly not to any Atkins diet extremes but just changing the balance of what I eat a little. I’ve realised also this summer that I tend to eat a lot of sugar in my diet. Again, I’ve moderated that, lots of Cokes have been replaced with San Pellegrinos.
So, to sum up what’s been going in, no extreme changes, just keeping an eye on what I eat, not stuffing my face whenever I feel hungry and keep the alcohol down to a sensible level.
My training to do well in Taiwan would need to be focused and oriented to the needs of the event. Disregarding the first neutralised 18kms of the event I needed to be prepared for a more or less constant effort for the next 85kms which was going to take me a little over 4 hours. I would have to be prepared for a final 10kms or so that would be very steep at times and between 2500m – 3275m in altitude, certainly high enough for an altitude related performance drop. Another major factor would be the timing of the event, late October, by far the latest event I’ve tried to do well in, deep into my usual ‘October John’ phase.
So, where to begin. Any rider preparing for a big event needs volume, miles on the bike. I’m lucky, my self created job with Alpine Cadence provides me with lots of miles, and importantly, miles of every type. I seldom ‘train’ as such, the vast majority of my riding is done with Alpine Cadence guests, leading them around the beautiful roads of Europe.
When I ride in big events in the summer I often do well off the back of the major trips that I’ve guided during May and June which is our biggest concentration of Alpine Cadence trips. I’ve already had my ‘summer peak’ this year with plenty of good performances in races, now I would need to either prolong the peak or peak again to be able to race well in late October, a new experience for me.
Late summer, as mentioned earlier, is usually a wind down for me, I ride the few trips that remain in September but there’s less motivation to ride any more than that. The last few weeks have followed a different pattern to previous years. On the trips themselves such as the Giro Dolomiti, I’ve been riding extra miles at the end of big days with the guests. After making sure that guests are safely checked into their hotel I’ve been heading off to hurt myself. Looking for climbs and riding hard. Trying to simulate Taiwan and having to ride hard after having done plenty already.
I recently did a loop from my house known locally as the Savoie Chicken due to the route shape on Strava. 250kms in total but the main climb, Col de l’Iseran, hit after having already ridden 180km. Again, riding hard up that after 6 hours of work already made me think it was good practice for Taiwan.
I also used the Iseran a couple of weeks ago to satisfy my altitude concerns. I headed to the top from my home, 57km and 2000m of sustained climb, not dissimilar to the demands of the first half of Taiwan. Once at the top I headed down the other side and rode up the final 2.5km @ 10% five times to put myself into plenty of discomfort between 2500m and 2770m, the highest riding around where I live.
I’ll most likely head up there again and do something similar in the next week or so. It’s as much training the mind as it is the body. Convincing myself that I can work hard at altitude and that I can work hard after already having worked for a few hours. I’m also very aware of the fact that I’m very lucky where I live and with the lifestyle I’ve created. Through taking advantage of all that I would be better prepared than most in Taiwan.
The goal of doing as well as I can in Taiwan has certainly kept me very motivated. Having a goal in endurance sport is vital for motivation, things can get very boring and tedious very quickly without a goal. Fabulous, enjoyable bike rides can rapidly turn into boring chores when the motivation fades and the rider wonders what they are out there for. This summer I’m loving every minute on my bike, I generally always do, but this summer perhaps even more. Being strong and lean feels good. Regardless of what happens in Taiwan I’ve really enjoyed the process so far. Staying strong and light further into the Autumn has not been as hard as I thought it might be. Body and mind are feeling very good! I think riders who have come on regular Alpine Cadence trips have noticed my increased enthusiasm and staying on top of my game through September has perhaps improved their experience with our trips too, I hope so.
I’ve never been someone to follow rigid training plans, I’m quite a disorganised person in many respects and it doesn’t work for me to stick to rigid plans. I ride when it suits me and I listen to my body and mind and I ride accordingly. When I ride outside of the organised trips that I guide on I’ll often go for a 20 minute warm up and then I decide what ride to do. I do what I feel is necessary. Perhaps I need a long ride, perhaps I’m overdue for an intense 30 minute effort, perhaps I’m feeling tired and need to chill and recover, perhaps I need to ride the flats and get away from the hills close to home, perhaps I just need to go to explore a new road. Whatever I end up doing it’s like I’m filling in the gaps. Doing what I think I’ve not done enough of as well as, most importantly, doing what I want to do. I love every ride I do, it’s never a chore. I love going easy and I love battering myself to oblivion and everything in between. This year has not really been any different. Just riding hard for a bit longer in the season and enjoying it for even longer than normal!
Quite a number of the riders that I ride with have set and rigid training plans. I appreciate that their busy lives sometimes require that so as to make effective use of their available time. I can’t help but think though that it effects their enjoyment of the sport, are they really loving every ride like I do? Not sure. I’m lucky with the time I have available, I know that. I’m also convinced though that you need passion to really get good at something. Understanding training principals is important of course but enjoying the process has got to be there to truly realise your potential. If I do well in Taiwan it’s down to my sustained love for the sport of road cycling rather than a conjured up training regime.
Cycling has lots of numbers, so much data to be able to quantify one’s efforts. I’m not ruled by the numbers at all (plenty of people are) but I enjoy the maths and find the numbers aspect another fascinating side of the sport. So what numbers would I need to be good in Taiwan?
Firstly power. The magic number that so many cyclists want to increase is their Functional Threshold Power, the maximum amount of power output that a rider can sustain for one hour. For climbers and time trial riders it’s an indication as to their ‘threshold’, beyond which an effort becomes unsustainable, the rider having ‘gone into the red’.
My FTP in recent years has reached a peak each summer of around 300/305 watts. This summer has been a strong one for me reaching an FTP of around 310 watts. As soon as a rider goes uphill that FTP figure means very little outside the context of the rider’s weight. This summer, as in previous years my weight came down and stabilised at about 65.5 kgs. Watts per kilo is basically the equation which determines how fast you’ll be up a hill. For me this summer my 310 watts/65.5 kgs gives me a figure of just over 4.7 W/kg, about as good as I’ve ever been since starting road cycling in 2005. To put that figure into some context, a Tour de France winner needs a figure of between 5.5 – 6.0 W/kg. Most male pro cyclists in their different guises (sprinters, rouleurs, climbers etc) would all comfortably be above 5 W/kg. Another reference perhaps more applicable to the amateur cyclist reading this is that a rider needs a sustained figure of 3.8W/kg to achieve a sub hour time on the famous Alpe d’Huez climb (Tour de France finish, 13.9km, 1160m of ascension).
The graph below is brutally accurate. My best time up Alpe d’Huez is just under 51 minutes, a couple of years ago when my W/kg figure was around 4.55 for an hour. If I went there now I’d expect to convert my current 4.7 W/kg into a sub 50 minute time. I pretty much know if I went there well rested with no wind on the day that’s what would happen. The maths of cycling up hills is very predictable.
Another way in which the numbers reflect the rider’s level is through VAM, (velocità ascencionale media). This is a figure that expresses the rate at which someone goes upwards, the number of vertical metres climbed every hour. This figure is not definitive as it varies on different gradients but it gives a good indication as to where a rider is. Those top Tour de France contenders with W/kg figures approaching 6.0 can get expect VAM figures in excess of 1600m/hour on 8% climbs. My 4.7 W/kg equates to about 1250m/hour. My VAM figures in races and big efforts within rides have been higher than ever this summer. For 20 minute efforts I am now capable of climbing at around 1350m/hour and 10 minute efforts see that figure rise to over 1400m. In the latter and toughest part of Taiwan KOM I will not be achieving figures anything like that but knowing that my capacity and threshold efforts are better than they’ve ever been before makes me feel confident and that I’ve prepared well.
In the next part of this blog I’ll talk about my bike and what I’ve done to maximise it doing the job for me and the tactics and planning of riding the event itself.
If you missed the first part of this blog click for my overview of the Taiwan KOM Challenge