Never say never again
Last year, I competed in La Marmotte, the world’s hardest amateur cycling race. It was the hardest thing I had ever done, and when it was over, I swore I’d never get back on a bike again.
And for 2 months, I didn’t.
But when I finally went out for a spin with my cycling group, I couldn’t believe how much fitness I’d lost. In a few short weeks I’d gone from leader of the pack to tail end Charlie.
So I restarted the previous year’s training programme. But I’m someone who needs a goal, and without something to train for, I struggled to stay focused or motivated.
A couple of weeks later, some cycling mates and I got to talking about La Marmotte and before I knew it, I’d agreed to do it again. (Luckily Mrs Voss agreed, so we were on.)
But this time I was going to do it better. I wasn’t going to leave without getting a gold medal time (awarded for finishing under 8h 12min).
A new plan
Finishing in 10h 12min had nearly killed me last time, so I needed a new approach if I was going to shave a minimum of 2 hours off my time this year.
If 2015 was the year of training hard. 2016 was going to be the year of training smart. And also hard.
After a bit of research (actually, lots of research; I’m a bit obsessive like that) the solution presented itself.
I discovered ‘Training and racing with power’ by Andrew Coggan and Hunter Allan. Its central premise is that heart-rate and speed (the measures I used as progress and performance indicators in previous training) are unreliable because they’re dependent on outside factors, like wind, road conditions, altitude etc.
Power, it explains, is absolute. The pressure a rider is able to put through the pedal is down to the rider and nothing else.
So with power at the heart of my training programme, I needed access to two key pieces of equipment: a wattbike and a power meter.
Hello Wattbike, goodbye lunch.
Luckily for me, we’d recently taken delivery of a couple of Wattbikes at Ten.
Although we use them as much for injury rehabilitation as for performance enhancement, the Wattbike is the indoor cycle of choice for British cycling and many pro sports teams. That’s not just because of its uncanny ability to make you feel as if you’re on a real road bike, but also because it provides an array of highly accurate, repeatable data to help measure and improve cycling power and technique (which, in turn, leads to more power, crucially for less effort.)
As well as helping me quantify and improve imbalances and inefficiencies in my cycling technique, the Wattbike became the source of regular and gruelling interval training sessions. These were designed to help me maintain and improve my functional threshold power – i.e. a maximum level of effort that I could sustain over a specific amount of time.
I also invested in a power-meter, so that I would have access to my data not just in the gym but also on my road bike. Understanding my power output whilst out on my training runs was the key to maintaining the balance of effort and stamina.
But while increased power was the key factor in improving my performance, it wasn’t the only one. All my targets were measured in power-to-weight ratio. And for optimal performance, I needed to be lugging less weight up those hills.
More power, less Cheyne
My goal was to reduce my body mass without reducing muscle mass, which would affect the power output.
So I cut out big meals on non-training days, along with processed foods, takeaways, sugary drinks and reduced my alcohol intake to less than 2 units a week. I added lots of fresh veggies and started to make my own flapjacks for eating on the bike, so I could be confident about the ingredients (and equally important, the lack of additives) in them.
I have to say that the process was easier than I’d expected. And by race-day I’d lost 7 kilos – 10% of my bodyweight (I’m tall, but pretty skinny with it.)
7 kilos may not sound a lot – but imagine putting 7 one-litre bottles of mineral water in rucksack and carrying it around for a day. You’d certainly start feeling it once you’d climbed up and down the stairs a few times.
Also less bike. But for quite a bit more.
In bikes, less is definitely more. Often a couple of thousand pounds more.
So, I invested in a new bike, weighing less than 7kg, at the bargain (well I thought so, anyway) price of £3000 – see the end of this piece for all the geeky details. (For domestic harmony, I was able to argue that at around £500 per kilo it was in a similar price-to-weight ratio as Mrs Voss’ new handbag.)
Guess what the best way to train for climbing mountains is? Yep. Climbing mountains.
So I took myself off to three pre-race training camps, each between 3 and 5 days hard riding (and each with a nice hotel and a swimming pool to fall into at the end of each day’s session). Coupled with my power meter, it was invaluable experience for understanding the power I could hold on a real mountain, and to be able to apply that knowledge to the gradients I’d be riding on La Marmotte.
The big day
By race day, I’d done all my preparation and my research. I knew exactly what to expect, I had mapped out each segment of the course, how fast I would need to go and how much power I would need to produce to get the gold medal. I was fit, fresh and raring to go.
Train hard, ride easy. (Well easier than last time, anyway)
I’m not going to pretend that it was easy. But it was so much easier than the previous year. I was able to manage my power, hydration and my energy levels. And it exhilarating to see the effects of 9 months’ hard training pay off as I felt like I was flying up inclines that had defeated me in 2015.
There was even enough in reserve to allow me to actually enjoy the experience and the scenery – and even (just) to manage a sprint finish.
I finished 470th out of 10,000 riders, with a time of 7 hours, 7 min. That’s 1 hour 5 min faster than I needed to win a gold medal – and a massive 3 hours 8 min faster than last year.
A personal triumph for me, and a vindication of power-based training.
In fact, if you want to know what a Wattbike and some power-based interval sessions can do for your fitness, come and see me at Ten. Just not straight after lunch.
10 key lessons
If anyone reading this is thinking of doing something similar, I have 10 pieces of information to share:
- Measuring your power output is key
- Specific intense power-based intervals is the most efficient way to get fit
- You can train for an epic event like the Marmotte with 90% of your rides being less than 1 hour long.
- Reducing your weight will have a greater impact on performance than just gaining power alone
- Losing weight is easy – just train hard, eat good food and cut out the booze
- Homemade cycling nutrition tastes so much better than shop-bought, and you can control what’s in it
- Canyon make the best bikes in the world for the money.
- Wattbikes are an awesome training tool – no other exercise bike compares.
- Get a power meter – and use it. (Stages is the most cost-effective brand on the market)
- Measuring your power output is key (I know I’ve said it twice but it is that important.)
The geek list
- Canyon CF SLX Carbon Road Bike
- Electronic shifters (Ultegra DI2)
- Mavic carbon wheels
- Stages power meter
- Trainer-road software for custom and pre determined interval training programmes
- Garmin GPS for recording your real rides (Stages power meter links to this)
- Strava Premium – for showing off your performances to your friends