Total Preparation: Fitness is Not Enough
What does it mean to prepare as well as possible for a big race? You’ll want to develop your physical abilities such as aerobic and anaerobic endurance along with sprint speed to peak for the event. That means accumulating many months of quality training and ramping up training volume and intensity at the appropriate time before tapering to be fresh for the event. (Click here for a complete discussion of the art of peaking.) Unless the course is dead flat, you’ll want to shed excess pounds from body and bike. Physical preparation is one important component of race readiness.
While race performance depends on fitness, physical training and resting are only small parts of the overall picture. You also need skills. You need to be comfortable in a pack, cornering at speed, moving into a line or protecting a wheel. You need to be able to stay low in the drops for extended periods. It’s handy to be able to move up between two riders or a rider and the curb or to take a bump without anxiety. You should be familiar with echelons and know how to stick on a wheel or give a leadout. Bike handling and drafting skills let you ride efficiently so you don’t waste your strength.
Fitness and skills are good, but they won’t win races by themselves. Tactics plus the ability to read a race and adjust on the fly are essential too. However, even with these important abilities dialed in, you can still lose a race for downright stupid reasons. Total preparation means doing everything you can to protect yourself from those unsatisfying outcomes.
How is This Race Special?
You need fitness, skills and tactics for every race, but you haven’t prepared for a particular race until you are ready for the unique situations it will present. Total preparation requires some homework. You must learn what is special about the target race and prepare for that. The relevant factors include the course, the conditions, the environment and the competitors.
Preparing for the Course
The more you know about a course, the better you can race on it. Read the course description and race reports from prior years. When possible, preride the whole course or at least the key sections such as climbs, descents, difficult corners and the final several miles. During your preride, become familiar with the details of the course. Ride difficult sections several times to find the best lines or memorize obstacles. Which turns require braking? Where are the potholes or gravel? Are there train tracks? Where are the turns or hillcrests where positioning near the front is advantageous. Where can you afford to fade back? Where will you start your sprint? What will you see just before each of these points? Small errors of timing or positioning at key points in the race can be fatal to your aspirations. Study courses so you’ll know where to be in the field and when.
Preriding a course also allows for intelligent choices of equipment. You might lose some enthusiasm for those aero but stiff, deep-section wheels after preriding a bumpy or wind-blown course. Might there be water, dust or cow flop on the road, necessitating glasses even on a low-light day? Is the terrain steep enough that you’ll need a lower low gear or will your normal cassette be adequate? (Remember that at altitude you climb the same grade slower, so you’ll want a lower gear than you would on similar terrain at sea level.)Improve your preparation and fitness The things to consider in total preparation can get pretty specific and also evolve with time. The Copperopolis Road Race is a Northern California classic with pavement so famously rough that I tell my clients to test their bottle cages by loading full bottles, turning the bike upside down and shaking it hard. If the bottle falls out, adjust or replace the cages before this race. Copperopolis used to be the only race for which I gave this advice. Now, with the proliferation of deteriorating pavement and gravel grinder races, this advice is needed more often.
Studying or preriding the course also lets you, or your team, develop a course-specific strategy. Identify sections where your strengths or weaknesses will be important and devise a realistic plan. For instance, the strategy that works on the winding roads near home may need revision for courses with long straights and tighter turns.
Preriding won’t be especially helpful if you don’t allow time to make corrections based on what you see. If possible, preride courses weeks or even months before your big races, so you’ll have time to correct any skill deficiencies or purchase and install necessary equipment.
Read the race bible or the flyer line by line. Look for anything that makes this race special such as centerline rules and feed zones, feeding from vehicles or the presence or absence of neutral support. Part of preparing for a big race is arranging your feeds and mechanical support. If you travel halfway across the country for a long, mid-summer road race, and you bring perfect form, skills and tactics but not a feeder or a way to carry adequate water, you’ll lose just as badly as if you had shown up out of shape or not knowing how to ride. Just as a mechanic is essential to success in muddy cyclocross races, a feeder is essential in long, hot road races. If you flat, a quick wheel change can get you back in the race, where changing your own tire or waiting for neutral support might end your chances. Be ready for the technical challenges of the courses and bring adequate nutrition and hydration, and you’ll have the opportunity to actually test your fitness, skills and tactics.
Failure to prepare for specific environmental conditions of a far-away venue has frustrated many traveling racers. Temperatures, humidity and air density vary from area to area. Traveling from a cold area to a warmer one or vice versa are obvious challenges in terms of choosing what to bring and wear.
Check the Weather Report
Different areas even have different daily weather patterns. If you come from an area where a cold, foggy morning means a chilly day, but you race in a place where morning fog burns off to scorching heat later in the day, you will suffer unless you have prepared by modifying your clothing choices appropriately. If you are accustomed to weather that always warms up as the day progresses and have the habit of leaving your jacket home, you’ll have the opposite problem in an area that stays cold. Luckily in the modern world, we can check the typical weather of any destination whenever we like, and get specific predictions by the hour for race day starting several days before the race. Checking the weather is part of doing your homework.
Prepare for Heat
No one rides as fast in intense heat as they do on more pleasant days, but people who are acclimatized to heat lose less power. Part of preparing for a race that will be hotter than your home training turf is heat adjustment. Start wearing extra garments at least four weeks before any possibly hot event. Overdress for training once per week but don’t rely on hyperthermic training for all your heat adjustment because overheating reduces training quality. You can benefit from overdressing around work and around the house without compromising training. Ideally, you’d wear enough clothing to be just slightly sweating all the time. Some people swear by saunas. Like hyperthermic training, daily overdressing or sauna time will trigger the increase in plasma volume that you’ll need to be able to maintain power and sweat rate in hot races but without compromising training quality.
Practice Rain Riding
Racing on wet pavement can either be scary or a blast. The emotion depends on whether you are used to rain riding, have brought appropriate clothing and wide, sticky tires, and remembered to decrease tire pressure a bit. The rider who takes wet corners slower than necessary gets dropped in rainy races. If your big race may get rained on, make a point of learning to ride in wet conditions. If you live in an area that sees no rain much of the year, practicing rain riding will require either traveling or getting out during wet weather, even if that comes many months before racing season.
Get Ready for Wind
Flat, wide-open road courses will have more wind than courses that are hilly or protected by trees or buildings. If you are accustomed to racing in wind-blocking terrain and your big race will be somewhere more open, practice riding in the wind both alone and with others so you’ll no how to respond when a gust tries to push you sideways off the road or when echelons form.
Train Descending Skills
People from flat country who go to race in the mountains often unnecessarily fear the climbs, but that anxiety is misplaced. You can train just fine for climbing by riding flat roads in a variety of gears to simulate the various cadences you’ll use in climbing. You can’t, however, practice fast descents, twisty or straight, without getting to actual mountains. If you’ll travel from flat country to mountains for any important races, take some time to practice down hills similar to those you’ll find at the venue. Remember that in the thinner air at higher altitude you’ll descend the same grade quite a bit faster, and that higher speed can be frightening and should be practiced.
You can’t learn descending all in one day or one preride. If you have no real descents near home but are going to race a mountainous course, invest some time in a multi-day descending camp.
Allow Time for Altitude Adjustment
If your key race is at an altitude more than a couple thousand feet (600 meters) higher than home, include altitude adjustment in your total preparation plans. When scheduling travel, arrange to be at the venue or similar altitude for five or more days before a high-altitude race. That’s long enough to get past the acute, negative effects of arrival at altitude. Real altitude adjustment takes much longer. Get to altitude several times for a day or two (or longer) in the months leading up to your race or use an altitude tent to get the same effect without leaving home. The research says that the benefits of altitude exposure last about three weeks.
Keep Your Friends Close and Your Enemies Closer
A final very challenging area of total race preparation is learning about your principal out of area competitors. Racing strategy at the elite level must account for who else will enter the race and their preferred strategies. Nothing beats actually racing with particular people as an opportunity to watch and learn their abilities and styles. If you want to win a big event, you need to get to other events attended by the same specific racers as well as the same caliber of racers. If that is not possible, learn as much about them as you can by talking to or reading blogs from others who have raced with them.
The tactics that work for you at home may or may not work as well in another district or with different competitors. I spoke once with a mountain bike pro who won all his local races but lost to some of the same people at bigger races. His strategy, which didn’t change from race to race, was to ride everyone off his wheel and then cruise in for the victory. This worked great when he was by far the strongest rider, but when other strong athletes showed up, he’d try to do the same thing and blow up so badly he’d be passed by lesser riders that he normally left in the dust. He may not have had the power to win the big races, but he would have done much better had he adjusted strategy depending on the competitors.
Fitness, skills and tactical ability are only a fraction of what you need to succeed in a key race. These elements form the foundation of your racing ability, but each race also presents unique challenges for preparation. Total preparation requires real time and effort. There will always be more you can do. Though preriding courses and studying environmental conditions and competitors may seem like overkill, they will be more advantageous than a few more hours of training. If you want the best possible results, do your homework.Improve your preparation and fitness
This article first appeared in the June 2015 issue of ROAD Magazine