Don’t be a rat

I first got seriously into bike racing when I was 23, after a decade of bicycle touring. I was young enough to dream of turning pro and riding in the Tour de France. I had great base from thousands of miles of touring and was faster than most of my non-racing friends, but knew close to nothing about racing, so I did what many independent-minded beginning racers do: I bought and read every book and magazine I could find on cycling, and I talked to my racer friends, most of whom were as clue-deficient as I was. There were lots of books to read so we were constantly adopting new nutritional stratagems, riding positions or training regimens.

One month we’d find a book on nutrition and all eat raw meat or take lots of vitamins. Another month we’d get hold of a book of specific exercises so we’d adopt a weekly schedule of sprints, intervals and base rides. We got books on heart rate training and did “AT” tests on each other. Essentially we were running our own performance laboratory, but not in the sense of white coats and careful science. We did lots of experiments and we ourselves were the white rats on the tread-wheels. Maybe some experiments were successful and some were not but we had no idea. There were no measures of success so we just kept on experimenting. We changed things as we ran across new ideas, and we hoped to get faster and end up at the Tour.

My First Non-Epiphany

Bike fitting was one area of frequent experimentation. Most of the training books started with instructions for fitting the bike, so we moved the seats up and down, tried different stem lengths and bar heights, and changed saddle fore-aft adjustment every few months. And of course we wasted a lot of time and energy arguing about which fitting method was better.
After dozens of adjustments, more than one long period of knee-pain and several years, I settled into a riding position that had me comfortable, powerful and injury free. During the period of dialing in the position I raced at least 100 times in less than optimal positions.

Then I had an experience that should have been an epiphany, though I failed to recognize its importance. I had decided to purchase a custom frame. The frame builder told me I had to get measured. He put me on an adjustable fit-bike and in less than five minutes had me in the position I had taken years to achieve and just by watching me pedal. Had I visited this guy before starting to race, I could probably have avoided a lot of pain, and have performed a good deal better as well.

Learn From My Experience

My buddies and I continued to read and experiment with nutrition and training strategies. A few years later, a former USCF National Team Coach and champion rider in his own right became the Coach for my club. He gave us training plans, and as with the bike fitting, he incorporated everything I had learned over the previous five years and more. Over the next couple of years, he taught me to train effectively and to race smarter. I started to have more good days and fewer bad ones. I even won a small stage race. I was able to ride farther and faster than I ever could before, but I was also approaching masters age and needed to focus more on a non-riding career. The guys my coach started working with when they were in their teens and early twenties are now riding the Tour de France, while I never raced as a pro at all. I sometimes wonder what I could have done had I gotten coached early on rather than experimenting on myself. I certainly would not know as much nutrition or training theory, but what races could I have won?

The point of all this? If you want to know everything about anatomy and physiology and nutrition and periodized training plans and bike fitting, read lots of books and science journals. In five or ten years with motivation you can know as much as anyone out there about these topics. You might earn a masters degree. But, if you want to win bike races as soon as possible or you want to know if you even could win, or you want to correct a pain you have while riding, don’t make the mistake I made. Don’t just read books and try things until you find what works. Instead, take advantage of the expertise that is all around you. Hire a coach.

What is a Coach?

What makes a person a coach? He or she has taken the time to learn a great deal about how to be a bike racer, and has passion and time for sharing that knowledge with you. Some coaches have raced at the elite level and some have learned while racing locally. Some have studied exercise science in college or graduate school, and some have absorbed it from other sources. The common thing is, a coach has done the learning for you. He or she has the answers you need exactly when you need them, not a year or two later when you happen to read an article in a magazine. A coach can also help you figure out which questions to ask and when to ask them. A good coach will save you years of experimentation so that you can reach your potential before you lose interest or become busy with other things.

A good coach does a lot more than bike fittings and development of training plans. There are many books and software packages that can help you develop a training plan. Some though by no means all bike shops have skilled fitters on staff. Your coach, unlike a book, can help you adjust your training plan to bring you back quickly from illness, injury or fatigue, or to prepare you for a special event, or to work around your work or travel schedule. Your coach can review your races and help you understand what you should do differently in the next race to better take advantage of your strengths. A coach can also answer all your technical questions: what should I eat? What gears should I take? Do I need to strength train? Should I train with power? Should I upgrade? Do I have to take “my” pulls? Should I race in the base season?

Choosing a Coach

There are a lot of people around calling themselves race-coaches even though they’ve barely raced and have limited knowledge, experience or formal training. Some have licenses and certificates or affiliations with coaching organizations to show that they are qualified. How do you choose the coach who will help you be a winner? You may need to interview several.
To be useful to you, a coach has to have the relevant knowledge. Book learning is a good start, but since so much of coaching is beyond science, experience is relevant as well. If the coach is a former racer at your level, that’s a form of experience. The fact that an individual races at the elite level doesn’t mean that he knows how he got there or how to help you get there though. More important is the coach’s success with previous clients at your level.

If you want tactical advice, look for a coach who has either done the races you’ll be entering, or who has done so many races that the situations you meet will be familiar even if the courses are not.

Do you like and respect the potential coach after a short conversation? This is the key question. Some coaches are very organized, well spoken or sensitive while others are not. Some coaches maintain office hours, while others are harder to contact. Some are details and numbers oriented while others aren’t. Some are chummy while others are business-like in all their dealings with clients. Some are extremely competitive and seem more concerned with themselves than with their clients. As you interview a potential coach, ask yourself, “do I like and respect this person”. If you would not follow his or her advice, don’t bother hiring them.

Coaching Makes Sense

Money becomes an issue when you consider hiring a coach. Good coaching costs from $60 a month on up to hundreds or even thousands of dollars, though beyond a few hundred dollars per month you are paying for the prestige of working with a famous coach rather than for the results you can expect. If your goal in bike racing is to see how far you can go, hiring a coach makes good economic sense. Figuring $50 per race for entry fee, gas, food, hotels, tires used up and so on, and 20 racers per year, you’re spending $1000 a year to learn to train and race. If each week you are training 10-20 hours that you could have been working, then cycling may be costing you hundreds to thousands of dollars per week. A coach who charges you $80 per month and provides good service is actually saving you money by helping your reach any given level of fitness and competitiveness years ahead of the time that you would reach the same level working alone.

There’s one final objection to hiring a coach that I’d like to deal with. Many people, including myself way back when, want to do it themselves. Having ridden uncoached and then coached, I can say that hiring a coach is like asking for directions in an unfamiliar city. You don’t have to do it and it may even remove some of the adventure but you’re a lot more likely to arrive at your destination on time. There’s another way that training and racing without a coach is like being a white rat in a lab. A lot of times you get killed at the end. Do yourself a favor. Don’t be a rat.

(This article first appeared in ROAD Magazine)