By Martin Sigrist
Takeaway: The special challenge of road cycling is its combination of duration and intensity. No other endurance sport has events that last as long and require, in order to be the best, intense maximal efforts, with the hardest usually being at the end. This presents special challenges not just to the body but also to the mind. That is one reason why building mental strengths and skills are as important as improving physical fitness.
The theme of many of my articles is that in order to be your best it is important to focus not just on becoming better physically but also mentally.
This is true of most sports with each posing their own, specific challenges.
For road cycling the nature of these challenges is due to the machine we ride, The bicycle is one of the most efficient devices, in terms of converting one form of energy to another, ever invented. Not only is it extremely efficient — it is also a cocoon. It protects us from the harsh realities of the real world. Not all of them of course, wind and rain are still a pain. But a combination of gears and tires means we can ride in blissful, comparative, isolation from incessant energy sapping, constantly changing road conditions that others have to endure. Running a mile not only takes longer than on a bike, but takes a heavier toll on the body. Every stride is an impact, changes of camber and gradient put entirely new forms of stress on fragile joints.
That is why completing a marathon in four hours is a much harder task than finishing a four hour bike ride.
Bikes allow us, even if comparatively unfit, to go a long way. To make epic journeys riding from dawn to dusk for days on end or even longer.
However, if we choose to compete on a bike there’s a sting, often literally, in the tail.
Doing your best requires going hard, as hard as you can after having already spent hours in the saddle. Some events even demand this daily for weeks.
This may take the form of a brief sprint lasting only a few seconds but at an intensity that most could not match when totally fresh. Or a sustained effort above your redline that takes many minutes. Or a climb that takes an hour or more at threshold. Just one all out effort may not be enough. It may be necessary to dig deep again and again.
It’s not all bad though. At times you may go easy, at times you may do no work at all. But even this respite may not be helpful. These occasions are the calm before the storm. They are not stress free because even during them a small mistake can mean disaster and there is always the knowledge lurking at the back of your mind that every revolution of the wheel means the next hard test is closer. A minor niggle can develop into a major pain as the miles pass by.
This is what makes road bike events special. I’m not aware of any other sport that has the same demands in terms of length, intensity and variability. In swimming the “longest” event takes the best less than 15 minutes, in track events less than 30. The marathon is of course an exception but it is closer to a time trial than a road race with even pacing being the key to success.
Even “short” road events take minutes, often many. Races will often take an hour or more. Over recent years increasing numbers of riders take part in events that require anywhere from 4 to 12 hours for even the best to complete, requiring them to cover many miles not just in terms of distance but ascent as well. Competitors in these last events may be required to give their all in conditions they have never experienced before (such as the nature of the terrain or environmental conditions like weather or altitude.)
“Ultra” events take more time. However they are one dimensional, it’s all about how long they are. You are never pushed to your physical limits in anything other than fat burning and eating capacity. In terms of power never get out of low gear let alone near your redline, doing so would be a major mistake.
The special nature of road events requires special skills. Fitness is, of course vital. But fitness is not enough. It will get you to the starting line and through the first challenges of an event. But to keep going until the end and still be capable of giving your best requires mental strength too. Having a good repertoire of mental skills and “mind hacks” can help along the way as well especially if not all goes perfectly to plan.
My next article will take this theme a bit further and break down the challenges that a road cyclist faces when trying to be at their best. This will provide the base on which mental training can be combined with physical training in a focused way so that those challenges that most apply to a rider can be tackled in advance.
Now among the world’s fittest sexagenarians Martin Sigrist started riding on doctor’s orders in 2005 and had to push his bike up his first hill. Next year he soloed the Tour de France. He has since experienced every form of road cycling from criterium to ultra endurance. His ongoing mission is to use the latest in science and technology to fight a, so far successful, battle against Father Time.