By Fred Matheny
Cycling is traditionally a summer sport. Feeling the breeze on your bare legs and the sun’s warmth on your back is as much a part of riding a bike as lubing your chain. There’s something deeply wrong, many casual cyclists would argue, about riding in the cold with snowflakes sticking to your sunglasses.
Traditionalists may contend that you need a break from training. Do something besides ride in winter, they counsel. Run, ski, play basketball. Wean yourself from the bike, and from serious exercise, to build enthusiasm that will carry you through the three seasons of cycling. In this view, only serious racers should train all year round—and only because they are getting paid to do so.
It’s certainly true that year-round training has been a key reason for the higher performance of pro riders. As recently as 20 years ago, European pros got off the bike in September and started training again in January, often having gained 10 or 15 pounds. They put in a desultory 2,000 miles and used early-season races to “ride into shape.” Eager neo-pros who went off the front were sternly chastised for their irrational exuberance. They soon learned to slow down and play the game.
That relaxed approach to winter has changed dramatically. Eric Zabel, six-time winner of the Tour’s green jersey during his pro career, was famous for riding as many as 8,000 miles between seasons and coming out strong in spring classics. Time off the bike has shrunk from three months to three weeks—and those precious three weeks aren’t consecutive but are spread through November and December.
Here are 10 reasons you should consider training year around.
1. Expand your cycling season. I bet you like to ride—you wouldn’t be reading a site about cycling if it didn’t rate high on your list of preferred activities. So why stop doing one of your favorite things for several months just because it gets cold, wet or dark early? With the right techniques, clothing and equipment, cycling can be a year-round activity at latitudes only polar bears could love.
2. Preserve last season’s fitness gains. If you finished the season flying—or at least feel- ing good—it’s depressing to think about all that hard-won fitness disappearing during the winter.
The “use it or lose it” syndrome is at work here. Exercise physiologists call it “detraining,” and some studies show that it occurs with frightening rapidity. Several aspects of fitness—power output in short efforts, for instance—can tail off in just a few weeks of not training.
EXAMPLE! In a study of 16 cyclists done at Florida State University, their VO2 max remained high despite much less time devoted to exercise during the winter. Only anaerobic power (sprinting and steep climbing) declined significantly.
But these riders weren’t completely sedentary all winter. They did other aerobic sports such as running, and some were in the weight room. Also, many of them rode, albeit at a lower intensity and volume than during the season.
The bottom line: It doesn’t take much activity in the off-season to keep fitness from vanishing. But maintaining fitness—or increasing it—requires a bit more investment in time and effort.
3. Avoid weight gain. In the above-cited study, the cyclists averaged 11.6 percent body fat at the end of winter—about 2 percentage points higher than would normally be expected in riders of their age and category. That’s not extreme. Moderate weight gain (3 to 5 pounds) can actually be good because it provides reserve energy for demanding spring training.
Greater amounts of winter lard are best avoided, however. The time it takes to ride it off with long and relatively slow early-season miles could be better spent honing speed and power. Carmichael states this limit: “It isn’t advisable to gain more than 10 pounds over the winter.”
EXAMPLE! We need look no further than Jan Ullrich to see the danger of too much winter weight gain. The German made a career out of finishing second in the Tour de France even though he’s been called the most talented rider in the peloton.
Ullrich traditionally packed on 20 pounds during the same period that Lance was doing his effective winter program. In the early season, Ullrich showed up bloated and struggling to ride off his excess weight so he could be competitive again, especially on climbs.
By Tour time in July, Ullrich was back to racing weight, but other pros had been there for months.
4. Improve your riding skills. Winter is a great time to practice the bike-handling techniques necessary to feel comfortable in testy conditions. Riding an old bike on snow or through the mud of a cyclocross course teaches you how to relax when the rear wheel skids. Get a few friends together for snow criteriums in a frosty field, and I guarantee that come spring, the wettest, slipperiest roads will seem tame in comparison.
5. Avoid SADness. Does winter make you depressed, sap your energy and give you an advanced case of cabin fever? Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a common affliction of people in northern latitudes. It’s related to lack of natural light, so getting outside to exercise is one of the best ways to beat it.
What a deal—stay fit and lift your mood all at once!
6. Boost your confidence. Belgium has the most depressing winter weather imaginable—an endless round of cold rain, sleet and wet snow. Yet Belgian riders train through the worst that northern Europe has to offer. In the spring classics (usually in the same abominable conditions), they regularly beat up on riders who spent the winter putting in their miles in balmy Mediterranean climes.
Training in abysmal conditions makes Belgians tough. Indeed, there’s a name for these masochists, flahutes, meaning hard riders who revel in wretched weather. It also makes them great bike handlers in slick conditions, a skill that comes in handy on the slimy cobbles of springtime race courses.
EXAMPLE! Andy Hampsten, who often trained in sleet and snow in Colorado, won the 1987 Giro d’Italia on the climb over the Gavia Pass in a snowstorm. It was so slippery and cold that most of the field abandoned or rode merely to sur- vive the stage. But because Andy was toughened by riding Colorado’s passes in January or sliding through snowy trails on his mountain bike, he knew exactly how to handle the conditions.
EXAMPLE! It works for us non-pros, too. My RBR colleague, Ed Pavelka, has ridden through 20 winters in Vermont and Pennsylvania. He still remembers one eight-hour ride on a dark-gray February day when the temperature hovered at 34 degrees and a slushy snow fell throughout.
Ed told me, “I felt like a Belgian today.” He got some fitness from that ride, but more important he got confidence. Even now, some 10 years later, he’ll think about that experience when the going gets tough. Because he did that ride, he feels he can do any ride.
7. Enjoy riding more next spring. If you get out of shape over the winter, spring is going to be tough. You’ll struggle to lose weight and struggle again to keep up with your friends on early-season rides. It can be dispiriting. But if you maintain and even improve your fitness, you’ll be the one handing out the hurt.
8. Beat aging! Never let yourself get out of shape and you’ll forestall most of aging’s deterioration. Studies show that each year it becomes harder to regain your previous level of fitness after a period of inactivity. “Use it or lose it” goes double after age 40.
If you maintain your fitness, age-related deterioration can be minimized to nearly undetectable levels.
EXAMPLE! Sedentary people fall victim to a decline in VO2 max (their ability to consume oxygen for energy) on the order of one percent a year after about age 35. But year-round training with an occasional dose of appropriate intensity can limit this loss to less than half a percent per year.
9. Add variety. What if you live in a climate where winter cycling is ideal? Maybe you’re in Arizona, Florida or another place so hot in summer that the off-season is actually the most comfortable time to ride. The risk here is falling victim to overtraining and stalled enthusiasm.
Being able to ride all year is a double-edged sword. It helps you maintain fitness, but it can get boring and predictable, too. So it’s important to vary your bike training with the seasons. This will help you remedy your weaknesses so you’ll be fast and strong when it counts.
10. Realize your hope. Even racers who’ve had an abysmal year will be full of hope again by Thanksgiving. The off-season’s three or four months of uninterrupted training can revive dreams and restore confidence. All cyclists, whether they compete or not, get an annual midwinter feeling that anything is possible next summer.
Unfortunately, all too often these dreams are followed by another season without that long- sought century PR, 10-mile time trial record, or sprint victory against weekend training buddies. Why? Because we tend to do the same ineffective training each winter. My brother Mike calls it “the futility cycle.”
To misquote Alexander Pope: “Hope springs eternal in the human breast. A cyclist never is, but always to be, fast.”
But this winter can be different. If you train the right way during cycling’s off-season, you’ll come out flying in the spring. Think of it this way: When daylight savings time is gone, the temperature is plummeting and snow is in the forecast, it’s the perfect time to train—correctly—for cycling.