By Lars Hundley
Next year I’ll turn 50. Over the past several years, my cycling training has changed significantly — for multiple reasons. Just six years ago, I rode more than 10,000 miles in a year training for Leadville. And five years ago at this time of year I was in peak condition, fully prepped for the June Dirty Kanza 200 gravel race.
I injured my back during that Dirty Kanza though, and haven’t raced since then. I have also mostly avoided rides longer than a couple of hours, because that’s when my lower back typically start to ache. Between that injury and spending more time at work and with family, I drastically reduced my cycling mileage (just 2,300 miles last year). I’ve added in a run once a week, strength training once a week, and a short yoga routine each evening. Overall, I feel much healthier and well rounded. My back has improved significantly. But my cycling-specific fitness has suffered, and I find it frustrating at times to struggle in situations that would have been no big deal just a few years ago.
Almost every week, I join a local weekly group ride that’s described as “tempo,” but usually ends up faster than that. This is not the kind of ride where anyone slows down to regroup. If you get dropped, then too bad — better luck next week. I’ve found this ride to be a good way to measure my fitness. If I can complete it without suffering, I know that I’m fit. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to complete it without suffering in quite a while now.
With my reduced mileage and cross training, I’ve been pulling everything I can think of out of my bag of cycling tricks just to keep from getting dropped on the hills or during the surges.
I emailed the RBR coaches with a description of what I’ve been doing, and asked if they had any additional suggestions. The suggestions were outstanding, and I thought they’d apply to anyone else who ever faces a similar situation of “riding above their pay grade” with a group that’s faster.
Here was my question to the coaches, and their answers.
I’ve been doing everything I can think of to keep from getting dropped on a weekly group ride, and I thought it might make an interesting question for anyone else who is riding in a situation where they having trouble keeping up with faster riders.
Some of my tricks have been:
1. Never, ever take a pull unless absolutely necessary. If forced to, then rotate through as quickly as reasonable and get a draft again. (It is acceptable behavior with this group to hang out near the back if you can’t pull as long as you don’t get in the way or try to set the pace or win the sprint later.)
2. Don’t sit back at the VERY back of the group, because when someone else gets dropped, they are going to cause a gap and you’re going to have to go around them and you might not be able to close it.
3. Position yourself well for the hills and get closer to the front so you can fade back without losing contact if they speed it up too much.
4. Drink a coffee before the ride so you’re caffeinated. (This ride starts at 6 a.m.)
5. Bring a bottle of sports drink to avoid the possibility of bonking before breakfast.
6. Always keep an eye on what’s happening up front so that you’re ready if there’s a surge and don’t get caught off guard.
Are there any other tricks and tips I can use on these faster rides where I am struggling? If you have suggestions for hanging on with a group of faster riders, send them my way!
Coach Rick Schultz
The life of a triathlete! Three disciplines to master!
1) Just stick with it, you will stay with the group further and further each time.
2) Avoid overtraining, cross-training, weight training, especially now that summer is almost here.
3) Sad to say, but most cyclists should start in December or Jan latest to start training for the racing (or fast group riding) season.
4) It’s all about the training miles. At this point, you should already have base miles completed and in the middle of Threshold training.
5) Soon, Vo2 max interval training.
6) Put a motor in the bike….. (joke)
My response: Triathlete!? That one really hit me where it hurts. Ha ha.
This response made me feel a little better, because I hadn’t thought about the fact that many other cyclists in this group are in peak racing form right now and how spring rides are definitely faster than other times of year.
Coach Jim Langley
Great topic, Lars. Here’s a quick few tips from someone who has been dropped many times 😉
-There’s drafting and then there’s drafting, by which I mean that top rider glue themselves to wheels, often less than an inch off the person in front’s rear wheel. To not get dropped you need to learn to be a wheelsucker. Think about that slang term and you get the idea – glue yourself to that wheel in front – the closer the better!
-Don’t yo-yo. Related to drafting, a common mistake is coming off a wheel and letting a gap open between you and the guy you’re sitting behind. Then you have to close that little gap, back and forth, back and forth. What you are doing is mini intervals and every one takes a little more out of your legs. Stop the madness! Stick to that wheel.
-Absolutely stay out of the wind. Pro riders can feel the wind way better than rookies. Just a little coldness on their shoulder or face or knees and they immediately get out of the breeze and find the shelter of the wind shadow behind the guy in front. It’s amazing how much energy fighting the wind takes out of you. Don’t give anything away. You can’t afford to because the other guys sure won’t.
-Learn to ride the drops and stay on the drops. Top riders can ride on top of the bars on the hoods and on the drops, it’s all good. Others should learn to ride on the drops. It keeps you out of the wind and usually much lower than the people you’re drafting. This means that even if you can’t stay an inch away from the guy in front, you will have enough shelter to not waste too much energy. But, here’s an equally important reason to ride the drops: it will save you if there’s a sudden commotion in the group and riders bump into each other. With your hands on the drops, no one can hook their arms or handlebars with yours. You might get bumped but you won’t get pulled down.
-People who don’t get dropped have learned the signs and signals of surges about to happen and recognize them earlier than people who get dropped. Because these experts have developed this skill, they react immediately and therefore don’t get gapped and don’t have to close gaps. This saves energy every time there’s a surge or acceleration in front. The signs and signals include many things, such as shifting into higher gears; riders in front looking a bit nervous or looking over or under their shoulder to see who is around; riders up front talking but obviously so that no one else hears. Also, sometime on a regular group ride there are locations where surges always happen, some riders have tendencies to do things at certain times – and more. You learn the signals if you watch carefully and pay attention – not so much if you don’t.
-If you’re getting dropped, the bottom line is you’re probably either: not fit enough, or wasting energy and burning yourself out on the ride. Getting fit is a lot of work. Saving energy is a skill anybody can learn – it’s a lot easier than training!
My reply to Jim:
The point about the drops was particularly appropriate, because I’m usually a brake hoods kind of guy — even during hard efforts. I always get my bikes fitted and I’m not too stretched out, so I just need to practice riding more in the drops until it feels like a more natural place to be.
I also know deep down that Rick has a point about more intervals if I don’t want to suffer and barely hang on, because lack of cycling fitness is the root of the problem.
Jim’s follow up response:
Glad you liked the tips, Lars. It takes a little practice but riding on the drops – if a bike is fitted right like you said yours is – should feel relatively normal if you get down there a little more.
I started doing regular intervals a little before I turned 50 and haven’t looked back. I do them indoors on a trainer and outdoors. All the outdoor intervals are basically hill repeats. I do some that are 5 minutes long on a gradual hill every Wednesday night. That’s 6 repeats of 5min each for a total of 30 minutes at what coach calls L5 or race pace intensity. That’s the most painful workout of every week.
On Saturdays we do 3 x 25 minute longer climbs at time trial pace, which is L4.
On the trainer on Mondays and Thursdays I do L3 repeats – not too painful. I have a watt meter on the trainer bike so I watch watts and a typical workout goes like this:
5 min at 190
5 min at 200
5 min at 195
5 min at 205
5 min at 200
5 min at 210
For you to setup workout like this, you’d want to figure out what your targets are if you use a watt meter. Otherwise you could just add some hill repeats outdoors. Almost any steady 3 mile climb will be perfect for the L4s. A 1 mile climb works for the L5s. You can go by perceived exertion if you want because that works perfectly fine too.
Intervals are like riding in the drops – once you see some fitness gains you’ll want to keep doing them.
Coach John Hughes
If you’re doing these rides before breakfast, eat carbs preferably an hour before the ride in addition to your bottle of sports drink. Since your rides start at 6 a.m. it may be hard to eat something an hour before but at least have a banana or gel before heading out the door.
Pros talk about rationing matches. You start out a ride with a book of matches. Every time you have to go hard you burn a match. Going hard could be climbing hard but staying with the group. Or responding to a surge. Or chasing back on. Or taking a pull. Or riding in the wind. You need to ration your matches so you don’t run out before the end of the ride. It sounds like you’re already doing this but the concept might be useful in your column.
Matheny says to guard your front wheel. Jim’s right that wheel sucking is a good way to save energy if you are 100% confident the person in front won’t do anything to cause you to crash. (Response from Lars: These 10 to 25 riders are experienced and ride predictably and safely, for the most part. There hasn’t been a crash on this ride in years.)
- Work on pedaling economy so that you get more speed for the same metabolic effort.
- Practice pedaling with a round stroke.
- Practice sprinting. You’re muscle fibers don’t naturally all fire at the same time. Sprinting makes the maximum demand on your body, which trains the muscle fibers to fire at the same time – like dialing in the timing in a car.
I agree with Jim that if you’re getting dropped it’s because you aren’t fit enough or lack the skills. Even if you master the skills, riding daily with a fast group is terrible training. Remember the importance of varying the intensity.
Your training week should include:
- Conversational paced endurance rides
- Very slow active recovery rides – so slow you’re almost embarrassed to be seen.
- Intensity – riding with a group that’s little better is a great way to do this.
The pros spend about 80% of their time doing #1 and #2. You’re riding with the fast group just once a week on Thursdays, which is good.
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