The Unique Needs of Novice Racers

Novice racers working their way up through the amateur ranks are not little professionals. Advice that is appropriate for professional riders is often inappropriate for novices. While developing riders share many characteristics with seasoned pros, they also differ in important ways beyond just speed, talent, available training time, and the requirement to pee in a cup each time they win. Like pros, novices must be serious about diet, training and recovery behaviors if they hope to eventually race to their potential. They must thoughtfully schedule their seasons and consider their approach to each race they enter, but how they think about their season schedules and how they approach their races should differ. The novice who simply scales down a professional’s yearly plan to include fewer races and fewer training hours will not make the progress he or she would on a training plan designed specifically for a novice. The novice who tries to use the team or individual tactics suitable for a pro race also won’t get the results he or she would with tactics specifically designed for novice racing. There is a key difference between novices and seasoned pros that necessarily affects race scheduling and tactics: The pro is essentially ‘developed’. He or she may train diligently to add a few percent to sustainable power or improve a skill, but barring major changes in training, the pro rides as well in each season he or she will ride in later seasons. The seasoned professional relies on luck, tactics and teammates to ride improve results against the same competitors.

By contrast, riders working their way up through the amateur ranks are working their way up. They get stronger from week to week, month to month and year to year. If they are not regularly improving speed and skills by large increments, something is wrong. The fact that the novice riders are steadily improving changes the most logical approaches to season scheduling and race tactics.

Season Scheduling for Professionals

Many training books advise starting construction of a training plan by identifying the “A” races, the events about which the rider cares the most. The rider plans to peak for the “A” races. Every aspect of the training plan prepares the rider for those peaks. Other races either contribute to preparation for the “A” races or they don’t belong in the schedule. “B” races are of moderate importance and will be ridden competitively unless that would interfere with preparation for an “A” race. Finally the schedule is filled in with “C” races that will provide training and skills practice for the rider and his or her team. This is a strong approach for top professional racers who need to be “on” for Worlds, or Nationals or a big stage race, plus a few races that are important to the sponsor. It also works for national class masters riders who focus on Nationals or a big home-town race. The novice in his or her first few years of racing is poorly served by the A, B, C race model.

Season Scheduling for Novices

In the fall of each year, I get calls from riders who want to train the best way possible for the following season but are in distress about trying to pick “A”, “B” and “C” races. They may be new to racing and don’t know which races should be most important to them, or they may still want to win everything. Often they are trying to reconcile picking one or two key races with the goal of accumulating enough races or points to upgrade, rather than winning or supporting a team star in one particularly tough race.

One of the assumptions behind the A, B and C race concept is that the racer needs to be on his or her best form to race competitively. For the rider who has reached or neared his or her potential and upgraded appropriately this is in fact the case. Riders who have made the last upgrade they have the talent to make, whether that is to the fours or the elite professional level, will be competing with other riders of similar talent and skills. He or she will need to have a personal-best ride to win a race. Such riders must think in terms of peaking for the most important events of the year. The situation is quite different for the up and coming racer.
The novice rider is improving competitiveness as time passes and will soon be, if he or she is not already, stronger than most of the racers in his or her category. In order for a four or three or two to upgrade, he or she needs to race more strongly than most of the other fours or threes or twos respectively. If a rider needs to be at a sharply defined, one-event peak to place in a race in his or her current category, upgrading is impossible. A rider who must peak to win has found his or her level. Rather, to upgrade a rider must be able to place in the points while in a broad multi-week or even multi-month peak which will span enough suitable races to get the needed experience or points.

Peaks for Developing Riders

In an earlier article I discussed the art of peaking. Very briefly, one can bring on a peak by 1) ramping up training intensity and volume to a level just a bit higher than can be sustained long term 2) maintaining the increased training load for a few weeks ending a few weeks before the key event 3) tapering or resting up to allow a full return of energy and enthusiasm for the event. Timed correctly and with some luck, this sets the rider up for an unusually good performance. The disadvantage of peaking is the loss of opportunities to be competitive before and after the peak. Before a peak there is a period of poor racing due to increased training, followed by the taper during which there is no racing at all. After a peak there is generally a period of demotivation and loss of fitness that means a lag of at least six weeks and usually longer before the rider will race at his or her best again. If the rider gets a win at Nationals, Worlds or a big stage race during the peak, the loss of competitiveness in other events is worthwhile. For the rider who needs 15 more points to upgrade though, the sharp peak is an error since it trades good performances in many races for better performances in far fewer races. The novice in pursuit of an upgrade should focus on steady improvements in skills, fitness, body composition and so on and simply accumulate upgrade points “ on the way through”.

Rather than trying to peak for a few “A” races, I suggest that the novice racer peaks for a key period of 2-3 months spanning several races in which the rider has a real chance. That can be followed by a six-to-eight week rebuild and second peak lasting another month or so. To achieve a broad peak a rider must not train beyond intensities and volumes that can be sustained long term. Rather he or she balances racing and training to stay just on the safe side of the line between strength and fatigue. Training volume is maintained at a moderately high level throughout the racing season because the rider is really training towards the following season and the next higher category.

Race Your Strengths, but What Strengths?

Another common bit of advice that applies well to professional and more experienced racers better than it does to developing riders suggests that one must race one’s strength and train one’s weaknesses. That’s great advice for riders who know what they are good at, but downright useless for riders who don’t, and really counterproductive for riders who are still improving on all fronts, as novices should be. A novice should be developing many aspects of racing ability from month to month and season to season. What the novice is good at this month is not necessarily what that same rider will be good at next month. If the rider pigeonholes him- or herself as a good sprinter or a good break-rider early in the season, for instance, and then rides all races from that perspective, he or she will miss the chance to find out that another ability has quietly developed. Unless the novice somehow knows that he or she has achieved a professional level in some ability, that novice should keep training all areas even if some are already strengths. Only when there is minimal room for improvement should an area be downgraded to maintenance training. Unless the racer is winning consistently in a particular way, rather than race the same way week after week, the novice should also plan to race as if he or she were good at different things from week to week, preferably always in a way that makes sense for the course and competition. That way new strengths can be discovered and utilized.

Novice Tactics

Finally, novice races are not just slower, shorter versions of professional races. The dynamics of novice racing are unique to novice races. The dynamics of professional races are largely determined by the interactions of the most powerful teams and by the knowledge of the racers. In the US amateur scene, the master’s 1/2/3 races and bigger women’s races resemble professional men’s races in this way, but rarely do the Elite 5s, 4s or 3s. In these categories, race dynamics are usually determined more by individual decisions made for individual gain. Some of those decisions are misguided and unpredictable. That means that while covering of break-aways and refusal to chase teammates are expected and normal parts of professional racing, they are less common in novice racing. Anyone who waits for formation of the “second echelon” in a novice race – a reasonably common occurrence in professional racing – should be making sure that the Blue Fairy is nearby or be rubbing a lamp.

The absence of teamwork and knowledge in novice races means that advice that applies very well in professional races, often does not apply in novice races. For instance, you often hear that you need to ride the front to be able to join in breaks as they form. While there are other reasons to ride the front, such as avoiding crashes and avoiding the accordion-effect, most novice riders will fare better if they attempt to join only one or two breaks per race, or even if they wait for the sprint than if they attempt to stay in the front and join break after break. In a professional race, once the speed picks up, the biggest engines naturally filter to the front and drive the pace, knowing that the field will eventually split. Riders who don’t move up when they can end up in chase groups. In novice races it more often happens after a short intense period that the pace drops again and riders of all strengths remain mixed together in all parts of the pack to the very end. In such a race, fighting for a front position is a waste of energy rather than a competitive necessity.

Not Little Professionals

Novice racers are not just little professionals. Their unique situations create the need for specifically developed training plans, season schedules and approaches to race tactics. If you are an experienced racer mentoring a new rider, remember your early years and help your rider to train and race appropriately to his or her experience and situation, not necessarily to yours. If you are a novice racer hoping to improve and move up, check that the training and racing advice you are receiving is appropriate to your situation. Doing so will help you make the most rapid possible progress up through the ranks to the point where it makes sense to call you a seasoned racer.

Scott Saifer, M.S. and the Coaches of Wenzel Coaching take all aspects of our clients’ situations into account before developing training plans for them. Training plans start at $80 per month. Wenzel Coaching also offers sponsorship in the form of discounted coaching for racing clubs. To inquire about coaching or sponsorship, please contact or call 503-233-4346.