This year could be the biggest so far for cycling in Britain. Our racers are riding the crest of a wave, cycling has never occupied such a prominent place in the UK's collective consciousness. Chris Sidwells suggests some of the ways you can make 2014 your best biking year ever
1. Reach for the stars
This year could be the biggest so far for cycling in Britain. Our racers are riding the crest of a wave, cycling has never occupied such a prominent place in the UK’s collective consciousness, and the world’s biggest bike race is coming to Britain. Chris Sidwells, with the help of a few top racers, suggests some of the ways you can make 2014 your best biking year ever
2. Live in the moment while holding on to your dreams
Focus on each aspect of your cycling as you do it. Plan to make the best of your ability. Focus on each single training session as you do it, and only that training session, then move on to the next.
In short, focus on what you are doing and don’t let everything get jumbled up, or you’ll end up going through the motions and not realising your potential. Above all, regard everything – training, recovery, eating or looking after yourself and your bike – as an essential step towards your goal. Because that’s what it is.
Some coaches call living in the moment ‘being in the flow’ and many consider ‘the flow’ as the gateway to the perfect mindset for competition. They call that ‘being in the zone’. The zone is a state beyond focus; it’s where you feel in total control, where you are dictating what happens, and everything around you slows down so you can analyse it correctly and do the right thing.
The flow is something you work on and practise, but once you’ve cracked it you can switch on the flow any time you need it. Keep doing it and you’ll soon be able to get in the zone when you need to. More about flow later, where we consider mantras and rituals.
3. Get a bike-fit
Lots of companies and individuals offer this service, and there has been lots of work on the interaction between cyclist and bike. The thing is there’s almost too much. You will get more from your cycling after a pro bike-fit, but who do you choose to do it?
One way would be to consider if you have any injuries or other physical problems that affect you when cycling. It might be best to consult a bike-fitter who has a physiotherapy background, or who works closely with a physiotherapist. Otherwise, find out from other cyclists you know whom they went to. Or keep buying this magazine, because we review the services of bike fitters regularly.
4. Love your bike
Look after it and cherish it, every day if necessary. It can be a chore but it needs doing. A clean, well-maintained bike boosts morale. It says the right thing about you and gives off positive vibes that you and others absorb. Plus, you won’t progress very quickly if you are always having bike problems; constantly having to be rescued by others puts a strain on friendships too.
It also helps in practical ways – a clean, well-maintained bike is more efficient. For example, a lot of energy is lost through a worn and/or dirty and badly maintained chain. Last, and by no means least, a clean and well-maintained bike is a safer bike, and we need all the help we can get out there on the roads today.
There are books about this, and about mantras and rituals. But basically, visualising a race or training session going perfectly can help you achieve that. To help you get started, try thinking about times when everything went well, when you were flying. Recreate the feeling of those times in your mind and dwell on them so your brain can create a pathway to access them when you need to.
Couple your visualisation with a mantra and a ritual and you could tap into some powerful stuff. We kid you not – most top sports people do this, but it needs practice, and you will feel self-conscious at first. It’s worth sticking with it, though, honestly.
6. Don’t make excuses
Make the best of what you’ve got; don’t put things on hold until your perceived situation gets better. Even some talented sportspeople do that, and it’s one reason why they don’t achieve their potential. You hear them say things like they did such and such a race for the experience of it, but next year (when this or that will be in place) they will really go for it.
The thing is, this or that might never be in place, and they might already have missed their best chance. Top sportspeople don’t put things off, they play with the hand they’ve got, the one dealt to them at the time. Their secret, though, is that they play it well.
7. Don’t let yourself be held accountable for other cyclists
There will always be cyclists who ride through red traffic lights, or otherwise breach the law and generally get on everyone’s nerves. Don’t get drawn into arguments about it. What they are doing is nothing to do with you, but some people will try to involve you simply because you are a cyclist. Don’t let them. Tell them what others do is nothing to do with you. Refuse to argue. It’s just a small thing but it can make life much easier.
8. Improve your diet
I know, you read this everywhere, but good diet is important for good health, and as we understand more about exercise, we now know it’s crucial for good performance.
You don’t need to live like a monk; just get interested in food and follow these broad principles, as follows:
Cut out as much sugar as possible. Eat complex carbohydrates, adequate protein and reduce the amount of saturated fat you eat. Unsaturated fat is fine, but increase the sources of omega-3 fats you eat. Cut out all hydrogenated fat. Do this and you’ll lose weight, feel better and ride longer and faster. We promise.
9. Stay positive
No matter how hard things appear to be, so long as you are going forwards, you are making progress. This is especially true if you set yourself a scary objective. The thing to remember is that progress in fitness is rarely linear.
You progress in distinct steps, and sometimes it can feel like you step back. But don’t let that put you off. Try to analyse why you went back, and address the reasons. And if there aren’t any, keep the faith – you’ll soon be back on track. Above all, don’t expect too much from yourself at once, just practise realistic optimism instead.
10. Watch the Tour de France in Yorkshire
Or Cambridge or London, or anywhere between the two. It’s going to be incredible, and it won’t be the same on TV. It’s going to be a massive cycling party that will take the country by storm, and you’ll regret it forever if you aren’t part of it.
Cycling has been though several turning points in the UK recently, and this could be the biggest. It could be when everyone ‘gets’ what we see in cycling. It’s just a brilliant thing to do.
11. Build a support group
It helps to have people on your side. A coach can inspire, counsel and direct, but above all he or she will be in your corner – because that’s the contract you have with a coach, whether you are paying or not. But there’s other support out there if you look for it.
Buy stuff from your local bike shop, get your bike serviced there and get involved in its initiatives, and it will come through for you when you need it. A good sports practitioner will help keep aches and pains in check, and can even help prevent time-consuming injuries. Lots of people can help, so get them on your side.
12. Train specifically
If you have an objective, make sure you analyse it, like British Cycling analyses its own. For any event, even the Tour de France, BC asks one question first; what does it take to win? It lists the answers, then it addresses them with the correct training.
That’s what you should do. Analyse your objective, break it into its constituent parts, and tailor your training to the parts. Of course, your realistic objective might not be to win a race, but this is still the approach to take in order to perform in anything up to your potential.
13. Always vote for the cyclist in SPOTY
It’s important that cycling keeps doing well in this competition. OK, cycling might be bigger than ever in the UK, but the higher echelons of BBC and the more established media haven’t quite caught up yet. A cyclist winning the Sports Personality of the Year naturally keeps us in the media’s eye, but equally if the cyclist doesn’t do so well it sends out a negative message.
If we can’t be bothered to vote, what does that say? It doesn’t cost much, and in return you will get more cycling on the box.
14. Camp it up
Training camps allow you to set aside some time to focus entirely on cycling. Traditionally they are done in winter in places where the weather should be warmer than it is in the UK. That’s all well and good – if you have the time and money to go on a winter training camp it will do you the world of good – but you don’t have to go abroad and you shouldn’t restrict training camps to winter.
Once or twice throughout the year, more often if you can, try to set aside periods of three days to focus almost entirely on cycling. Do a training block, going further, harder and deeper than you usually go.
Because it’s all you’re doing you’ll be able to handle it. Done a month before an objective, and followed by three days taking it easy, including one with no exercise at all, a three-day block stimulates a super-compensation response in your body and gives your fitness a sharp kick upwards.
Unsure what to do during the three days? Try this variation of a British Cycling three-day training block. Day 1: 2.5hr hilly ride, pushing really hard on every hill. Day 2: one hour in the morning at close to time trial place; one hour in the afternoon, during which you do four five-minute efforts going as hard as you can for five minutes. Day 3: at least three hours of riding at a good steady pace.
15. Race hard
Be wholehearted with your effort in any competitive situation. Do that, and win or lose you know you did your best. And doing your best is the only way to guarantee a satisfactory outcome from competition, because it’s the only thing that you can control.
16. Review and plan
Once you decide on your 2014 objective or objectives, review what cycling you’ve done so far and do the things you did in the past that will help you in 2014, while resolving not to repeat stuff that held you back. Then keep reviewing and planning as the year progresses, using your reviews as little stepping stones on the way. Try to assimilate what you’ve learned at each stage, and use it to go forward.
17. Sort your kit out
Buy the best stuff you can afford, buy it in time so you get used to it before any big objective, and look after it. Replace worn and faded kit. And above all, remember that you ride better if you look better.
18. Work on your core strength
This is crucial, and although many of us play lip service and have a go from time to time, core work is the first thing to get left out if time is tight, and it shouldn’t be. Follow the lead of ex-Tour de France rider and one of BMC’s team directors Allan Peiper. He’s busy but he’s still incredibly fit, years after his racing career ended in the 90s. He’s so convinced about the value of core training that he’ll end a bike ride or run 10-20 minutes early, if time is tight, just so he can fit in his daily core work.
While we’re on about core strength, have you tried riding on rollers? If not, think seriously about including roller riding in your training, because as well as a bike workout, riding rollers really trains your core. You have to activate all the right core muscles just to stay upright on the damn things.
19. Ride with a group
Not all of the time; riding on your own brings its own pleasures and experiences too, but riding with a group is fun. It’s also the best way to learn and hone skills, to improve your sprint or your ability to follow through a wheel and navigate past others. Fast group riding also has a positive effect on increasing your power output, without having to think too much about it.
20. Ride in the rain
Riding in the rain is fun, it’s good for the soul and it improves your bike-handling skills and your appreciation of how road conditions change in the wet. This is a crucial piece of knowledge should it rain during any race or other kind of event you take part in.
You’ll feel more confident and on top of the situation. Riding in the rain also helps you get used to it, and therefore helps diminish any discomfort that can arise from wet weather. Good clothing also helps with that, which is the third reason why you should ride in the rain. It’s part of the joy of cycling, an experience all of its own, and one that gives you a special glow when it’s over. And with the great clothing available now, there’s no excuse not to.
21. Keep your shoes clean
They get overlooked. You come in, put your kit in the wash basket or in the washer and have a shower, but your shoes go in the cupboard. You might clean your bike later, but do you remember your shoes? OK, maybe just me, then.
So this is my new year’s resolution, because it’s no good putting on fresh kit, taking out your clean bike, then realising your shoes are still dirty. Some say your shoes speak volumes about you – well, mine have said I’m messy.
22. Get any physical problems sorted out ASAP
If there’s something holding you back that could be sorted with some treatment, get it done now. People live with nagging pains and discomfort, which speaks volumes for their stoicism, but they may not need to put up with it. These are the sort of things that hold you back.
Let’s go back a bit first, though. The first step in putting something right isn’t the actual treatment, it’s accurate diagnosis. See a sports-specific practitioner, and ideally one who has lots of experience in cycling. Then follow what they prescribe to the letter, be patient and diligently pursue any remedial exercises they give you. And did I say be patient? It might take time but the end result is worth it.
I’ve known cyclists who’ve been riding for years on half-power, then get a little niggle sorted and have then blasted everyone off their wheels. They feel great, but they wish they’d done it years ago.
23. Try a massage
The pros all use massage to help them recover and there’s evidence that it works, but for most of us weekend warriors it’s not needed on a day-to-day basis. However, where it can be of benefit is in helping prevent soreness and tight muscles after hard training sessions.
There are plenty of sports massage practitioners who do a great job, but you can do this level of massage yourself with a foam roller. Buy one that comes with a DVD to show you how to use it properly.
24. Ride before work
Don’t bother with this if you have iron discipline, or always finish work at the same time and have a regular window after it to train in. However, if the words ‘no time’ are cropping up a lot in your training diary (start one in 2014 if you haven’t already), try training before work.
Commuting is one way of training before work, but this very potent turbo session is convenient and straightforward, once you steel yourself to get up early and get on your bike to do it:
Wake up, get up, get your training kit on, drink a glass of water, and go. Ride the turbo for 25-30 minutes at around the pace you can sustain for one hour. Coaches call this intensity the sweet spot. After half an hour, go straight into one minute as hard as you can.
Recover for two minutes, pedalling easy. Then go again for one minute hard. Repeat the one minute hard/ two minutes easy until your power drops off or you feel as though you can’t face any more.
Now, shower, eat and go to work. Fit three of these sessions in per week and you will get very fit indeed, that’s a promise. The efforts you make during each session are key fitness boosters, and the fact that you do them without eating triggers a whole host of positive fitness responses in your body. The downside is they aren’t much fun, but no pain no gain, eh?
25. Keep waving
Even if other cyclists don’t acknowledge you, give them a nod or a cheery wave. Hopefully they will thaw out and start doing it themselves. It’s a tiny, short exchange on the road, but it helps build a cycling community.
People are watching us out on the road like never before, and when they see two cyclists acknowledge each other, they see a shared experience – a community whose members respect each other, which should gain respect from everyone else too.
26. exercise your inner chimp
Then lock him or her away again. You’ve probably heard about Dr Steve Peters’s work with British Cycling. He’s a key part of the recent cycling success story. Basically, Peters calls the emotional and irrational side of our personalities our inner chimp, and if the chimp starts making decisions or controlling you in training or in a race, you won’t achieve your full potential.
However, it’s not healthy to keep your chimp locked all the time, and there are areas of life where the chimp comes into his or her own. Just practise control.
27. Plan some epics
What’s an epic? It’s anything that takes you out of your comfort zone, and can even be something you might think is beyond you. An epic ride should stretch you.
It should be exciting, a voyage of discovery that takes you to places, physically and/or geographically, that you’ve never been to before. Epics are fun to plan, they inspire too. And when you’ve done one, you will be a stronger, fitter and more confident cyclist. Above all, an epic is an achievement in itself.
28. Think more about why your are cycling
Understanding why you ride and why you want to do the things you want to in cycling can help you explain your desires to others. This can be an invaluable help in various relationships, from your boss or teachers to your loved ones.
29. Try a different aspect of cycling
Variety is the spice of life, and cycling has plenty of variety. Make 2014 the year you sample some of it. Do something you’ve never done before.
30. Get a ritual
You see sportspeople perform these before they do a lot of things. A Tour de France rider might tug at his oversocks or shake his shoulders in the last few seconds before the start of a time trial. Track riders often do them. Sir Chris Hoy used to touch his glasses and helmet in a certain order before the start of a 1,000m time trial.
Footballers do them, tennis players, almost all sports people do. The ritual prepares them, it switches them on. They probably repeat their mantra at the same time. Some have even undergone NLP therapy or hypnotism to open pathways that the ritual and mantra trigger. They also couple this process with visualisation.
31. Read more
Books can be helpful, educational and inspirational as well as very practically instructive, and there are more available now than ever before; ditto magazines.
Much more is known now about training, diet and how to improve as a cyclist, mainly because cycling is so easy to measure and quantify. British cyclists and their coaches have been at the forefront of research. More often than not, this information trickles down into magazines like this one before it reaches books.
Read every article you can about training, preparation, recovery and generally supporting your effort. Try things, adapt them, then discard what doesn’t work and use what does. In short, become a student of cycling to help you improve. Get a coach to help, if you like, but still keep reading.
32. Get more sleep
Correct training + good nutrition + solid recovery = increased fitness. That’s the basic fitness equation, but although a lot is written about the first two aspects, and many cyclists get them more or less right, the third, solid recovery, is often skimped on or even overlooked.
That’s a shame because recovery is just as important as the other two components; it’s when fitness gains take hold.
Recovery means rest, and the most powerful recovery tool is sleep. Your body grows stronger and fitter after you stop training, but that process accelerates during sleep. Growth hormone is one reason why it happens; it’s secreted by your pituitary gland, and one of the strongest factors that stimulates its secretion is sleep. Increase the quality and quantity of sleep and you get a bigger hit of growth hormone, so you’ll recover quicker and will be able to train hard sooner, and so you get fitter.
33. Record and analyse more
Numbers are powerful. You can work on a number; you can do things to increase or decrease it. A number tells you where you are. A number can tell you if you are making progress. Numbers are objective; most other things connected with performance are subjective.
The most powerful number to work with is power output, but speed and time are good too. If you ride the same circuit faster than before with the same effort, and under more or less the same conditions, you are making progress. You are getting fitter.
Record all the numbers you have access to. Your weight, your morning pulse, duration of your training sessions, heart rate, times, average speeds, and power, if you have a power meter. Write them down and they will show you where you are going. They show you if your training is working or not. They can even show you what you need to change.
34. Be dogged
See things through. Stick at your training plan. Keep pushing until the end of each interval. Sprint until you are across the line, even when you get beaten. Carry on climbing hard even if you are dropped. If top cyclists share one thing, it’s doggedness. And the best don’t accept defeat. Even if it happens, they keep coming back until they win.
Of course you’ve got to look after yourself. You can’t stick to a training plan when you are sick or injured. And you shouldn’t stick to one if it’s not working. But give it a chance. Many experts believe that it takes 10,000 hours of doing something before you reach your potential.
That’s a lot of riding. Stick at it, grit your teeth and see it through. Ninety-nine percent of us are nowhere near what we can do. Just don’t be one of those who never tries.
This is connected to visualisation, to flow and getting in the zone. It doesn’t mean staring out the window all dewy-eyed and wishing you weren’t in a particular meeting or at school. It means taking time to visualise the good sensations of cycling and visualise you riding perfectly on the way to achieving your goals.
It doesn’t mean seeing yourself on the top step of the podium on the Champs-Élysées dressed in yellow with the Arc de Triomphe behind you, although now I mention it that is a nice image to conjure up on a grey winter’s day.
But more practically it means things like a track pursuiter visualising the perfect start and pick-up. A time triallist could visualise riding in a perfect aerodynamic tuck while cutting through bends on the perfect line. In fact, perfect should be a feature of all your cycling daydreams; the perfect sprint, a perfect climbing performance, or a perfect descent.
Try it, and say you mantra under your breath at the same time too. Maybe try your ritual as well. Every time you do this you are working on mental and physical pathways that boost your performance.
36. Get a mantra
Simple: three words that you can use to get in the moment when you are training or in a competition. They should be evocative words, words such as ‘power’ and ‘strength’, but also descriptive words, such as ‘round’ or ‘smooth’, which would apply to your pedalling.
The third word should be what you are looking for, e.g. ‘speed’ or ‘fast’ for riding on the flat, and ‘light’ could work uphill. You might end up with a mantra like ‘power, smooth, fast’. Work on yours, write it down and use it while you are training or before and during a race.
For example, you might be doing short-burst turbo intervals or HIT intervals. You don’t do them? You should. They are flat-out efforts of 10-30 seconds with two to three times the duration recovery between each one.
These are really potent and boost power and fitness, but they also stimulate the neuro-muscular pathways that improve cycling efficiency. Anyway, using a mantra like ‘power, smooth, fast’ and saying it over and over during each HIT effort helps you focus on what you are doing, i.e. perfect pedalling.
Practise with your mantra and it will help you get the right mindset for training and competition. Especially when you link it with a ritual.
37. Improve skills and technique
Cycling is a very nuanced sport. There’s a lot of technique involved, but have you ever thought of having cycling lessons? You should. You’d do so if you took up golf or some other sport.
A number of coaches, such as Stuart Gourley of Radeon Cycle Coaching, offer basic skills courses. He teaches cornering, how to ride in a group, how to work in a pace-line and almost everything you need to know to improve in road races and cyclo-sportives. He runs sessions at the Odd Down race track in Bath; check him out on www.radeoncyclecoaching.com
You can also learn skills by joining a cycling club and going on their organised rides. The next step, when you are ready for it, is the age-old cyclist’s skill and speed-improver – the dreaded chaingang. We’ll be checking out some of these sessions and chaingangs during 2014 – so hopefully we’ll help find one near you.
38. Change your perspective
This is another very powerful mental tool that helps your cycling. It’s possible to change how certain things feel by re-framing them in your mind. Take riding in the wet, for instance. When you get down to it, unless it’s lashing down and/or really cold, it’s not so bad once you get going. However, what we tend to remember, and have imprinted in our brains, is the first few minutes when a spray of cold water is squirted up our backs and in our faces.
Think about that now; it’s unpleasant, isn’t it? Try this, though. While keeping the feeling of that horrible first splash of rainwater in your mind, create a picture of it, then diminish it. Fade the picture and the feeling with it down into the bottom left-hand corner of your mind, while at the same time bring up the picture and good feeling of bowling along, nicely warmed up, in the rain.
Make that picture bigger and brighter, try to feel it more intensely too. Keep practising — it takes time to master this – but it’s worth it. You can do this for all sorts of aspects of cycling.
39. Identify and correct your weakness
Do you keep getting out-sprinted or dropped on short sharp hills? Is there a type of training that you really don’t like doing and put off when you can?
Those things are likely to be your weaknesses, and they are not only holding back your cycling performances, they probably stop you enjoying it fully too.
Get advice from a coach or a more experienced rider and put training sessions in place that help you improve them. You might not have to do much – losing a bit of weight can bring on your climbing, for example. Just get to work on your weaknesses – now!
40. Above all, ride for joy
This no further explanation really.