I’ve done week-long tours before (including the TdW two years ago), but last week’s Tour de Wyoming was different in a fundamental and important way. And because of that, the feedback and lessons I have to share with you today are a mix of universal lessons that apply to all of us and specific lessons about taking on a big event coming back from an injury.
I started riding the trainer about 10 days after surgery, and did about a month of trainer workouts before a family trip, then was able to ride on the road for about 3 weeks before the Tour de Wyoming.
Those three weeks of road riding included weeks of 136 miles with 3,800 feet of climbing, 121 miles with 3,100 feet of climbing, and 120 miles with just under 5,400 feet of climbing. The first two weeks were local Atlanta rides – plenty hilly but with only a few “real hill” repeats on a .7-mile local tilt. That last week included the one and only ride in the mountains of North Georgia I was able to do, with about 3,000 feet of climbing on a brief ride of about 33 miles. Oh yeah, I’m still about 10 pounds over the weight I should be at this time of year, which doesn’t help.
In short, I harbored no illusions of being anywhere near fully fit and on form for the Tour – which packed about 25,000 feet of climbing over the Bighorn Mountains in the 355 total miles (131 climbing miles) and six days’ riding. Two days of the six included major climbs up to 9,000+ feet (2,743m) – one of those featured about 6,500 feet of climbing over the first 33 miles to the top of Powder River Pass, at 9,666 feet (2,946m) with long stretches of 8% and higher gradients (that’s me and my two buddies in the photo; more on them below); the other a more “civilized” 5,500 feet of climbing packed mostly into a 17-mile or so climb at about 5-6%, topping out at the 9,033-foot (2,753m) Granite Pass.
To cut to the chase, I followed my plan (for the most part – more on that below) and never even sniffed the SAG wagon. It was one of the hardest events I’ve ever done – and that 33-mile climb up Powder River Pass was one of my hardest days ever on the bike – but I pulled it off and now can tell the tale.
Would I have done some things differently? You bet. Am I thrilled, and proud, I accomplished a goal I had very serious doubts I would be able to accomplish? Absolutely!
Follow a Training Plan Through a Comeback
One of the first thoughts I had after my crash in April – cemented after finding out that I would require surgery – was that my only hope for being able to do the long-planned-for Tour de Wyoming was to follow a training plan to maintain as much fitness as I could on the trainer, and then kick start my road riding when I was cleared for that.
I turned to Coach John Hughes, who enthusiastically accepted the challenge. He’s come back from significant injuries himself, and helped other riders come back from serious injuries to accomplish their event goals.
Especially for the trainer portion of the comeback, I really could not have done it on my own. Following a regimented plan down to the minute across different intensities (power zones) to accomplish different aims really made the most of the time and effort I was able to put in. And having a defined schedule helped keep me focused on what I needed to accomplish along the way.
I continued to follow Coach Hughes’ plan when I was able to get back on the road, making sure to adhere as closely to it as possible to continue to build the endurance and power needed for the Tour. Included in that were 4- and 5-hour rides, intervals and steady efforts at the dictacted power zones. And some climbing.
I’m convinced I would have had no shot at being ready for the Tour without following a coach-led plan. If you’re coming back from an injury or illness (especially if you’re approaching a cycling goal event), consider hiring a coach to get you there, or even just to make the most of the time you’re putting into your comeback.
Think Through Your Deficits and Be Flexible
I was understandably eager to jump back into road riding after two full months off the bike (my longest layoff ever). And Coach Hughes had laid out an aggressive ride schedule for me in the three weeks I had left to train before the Tour.
I dove into it with gusto – doing a metric century on my third ride back.
What neither Coach Hughes nor I had considered was the significant difference between my trainer riding (almost entirely sitting upright, with one arm literally bound to my chest) and the much more aggressive and taxing style of riding bent forward with both hands on the bar (which, of course, we never think about when we’re fully healthy).
While my legs were a little sore and tired after those first rides, my lower back ached. And it stayed that way, unrelenting, through nearly the entire three-week training block. I iced, I stretched. And only near the end of that three weeks did it start to abate.
It was also clear that, while I had followed the trainer portion of the plan to a T, I still did not have the stamina or endurance to do all the riding Coach Hughes prescribed when I got back on the road. I would have cooked myself beyond repair had I not dialed it back. We both had to be flexible and deal with what I was capable of doing.
Use your own good judgment in deciding what you can and can’t do when you’re coming back. The last thing you want is to injure yourself in a different way that hinders your comeback. And think about what may be different re: “real riding” as compared to how you ride on the trainer. Be prepared for some adjustments in the training plan – and roll with it. Just as your coach should do, too.
Consider Massage Therapy
I’m one of the lucky roadies who is not prone to back pain. I’ve had it from time to time, but I know my body well enough to know that taking a few days off the bike ususally knocks it out.
I didn’t have the luxury of doing that during that three-week training block, so I just kept going. (I knew it wasn’t an injury; if I had thought it would lead to that, I would have shut it down.) As mentioned, I iced after every ride (and between rides) and stretched, and by the third week, I could feel the pain ameliorating somewhat. But it wasn’t gone completely, and I was fearful that the extreme climbing on the Tour would really ratchet up the back pain.
So after the first day’s ride on the Tour, I got a massage – which (nearly miraculously) freed up my back and kept it pain-free for the entire week.
I actually got another couple of massages during the Tour and am utterly convinced I could not have completed the ride without them. After the big climbing days and the Queen Stage (86 miles through the Badlands) my legs felt like they had given all there was to give. But the massages, and a nights’ sleep, brought them back to life to go again the next day.
The massages also tremendously helped my neck and shoulder area around my repaired clavicle – which are still quite prone to stiffness and, on occasion, extreme tightness.
Consider massage. It really works. Self-massage is a good alternative if that’s all that’s available. (Coach Hughes has some useful info on self-massage on his website, http://www.coach-hughes.com/)
Make a Ride Plan – And Stick to It
The week before I left for Wyoming, I started formulating my ride plan. I shared with a couple of buddies that my ride motto would be: Be the Molasses!
One joked that the Tour would be the ultimate experiment to determine if molasses “flowed uphill.” It does!
What that motto meant was this: I would ride as slow as I felt I needed to in order to conserve energy for the next day and the rest of the week. I would try not to push the pace much, if at all, and would encourage my riding buddies (two friends from California I had met on a previous tour there) to keep it in check or – if I really couldn’t hang with them – to cut me loose and I would ride on my own.
We also agreed on the climbing days to ride at our own pace and meet at the rest stops along the way. (There’s really no way to stick together on long climbs, anyway.) We would then start the next section together after refueling at the rest stop.
Only once did I deviate from my plan, and doing so made the 86-mile Queen Stage through a near-desert landscape of the Badlands (see photo, above) seem nearly interminable.
The day started with terrain favorable to a fast paceline, and the three of us picked up another rider along the way. Even though they sheltered me in the line, I was still expending extra energy just to maintain their pace. Big mistake.
About 50 miles in I really started to struggle. Even though I asked them repeatedly to slow down, it’s not unusual for riders on form to slowly, unconsciously build speed as they go, or for a new rider on the front to kick it up just a bit. I hung on, and hung on some more, and was eventually saved by a 90-degree right turn – which delivered us to a newly paved road and, more importantly, a much-appreciated tailwind!
That one deviation from my ride plan could have been very costly. Thankfully, I didn’t get so deep in the hurt locker that I couldn’t get out. But I needlessly put the rest of my ride at risk. Lesson learned.
Make a ride plan. And stick to it.
Rely on Your Cycling Friends
Back to my buddies Scott and Mike for a minute. Just like Coach Hughes’ training plan, the massages I got during the Tour, and keeping (mostly) to my riding plan, my buds played a major role in my successful ride.
They followed my recovery progress and knew going in that I would be at far less than full fitness on the ride. They treated me like his Sky mates treat Chris Froome on all the meaningless Tour de France stages where no one is a threat to him – they kept me out of the wind, didn’t mind if I skipped pulls entirely, and pretty well tugged me along on the days without big climbs.
Without their help, I would have had to put in far more work on those days, and it would have taken a toll on my ability to get through the entire ride, to be sure.
But with their help, I slowly rode myself into better form throughout the week. On the penultimate day – which included the 17-mile climb and 5,500 feet of elevation gain – we stuck together the entire day. It was a long, steady climb without respite, but it suited all of us well. We chugged up through Shell Canyon (see photo, above) and through the sweeping, Euro-looking switchbacks at the upper elevations to the 9,033-foot Granite Pass.
And then we thoroughly enjoyed the slight downhill grade of the upper plateau that allowed us to effortlessly speed along at near 30mph for long stretches.
That day was bliss on the bike!
If you’ve got good cycling buddies and need some help (whether you’re simply having one of those bad days that we all have on occasion or you’re coming back from an illness or injury), they’ll be more than willing to treat you like Chris Froome, too.
Use the SAG Wagon If Needed
Both Coach Fred Matheny and Coach Hughes mentioned to me before the ride that there’s no shame in hopping in the SAG wagon if you just can’t cut it that day. Better to save yourself to ride the rest of the tour than to annihilate yourself for the sake of finishing one day’s ride and putting the rest of the week in jeopardy.
In fact, both told me they’ve SAG’ed before on tours – for exactly that reason.
I have to be honest and say that I would have – in the words of commentator Paul Sherwen – turned myself inside out to avoid the SAG wagon on this Tour. Yes, I had it in the back of my mind that if I ever felt that I really, truly couldn’t make it that day, I’d SAG in. But I felt even stronger that I had something to prove to myself and would give it everything I had. Which leads to the last point….
Don’t Discount the Psychological Benefits
When I got home, my wife asked me what my favorite part of the Tour was. My answer was in three parts (including the cameraderie of hanging out with my buddies and meeting new folks throughout the week, and seeing more of the amazing landscape of Wyoming). But the first part was this:
It provided a mental/psychological boost after a very difficult period in my life and was the achievement of a really tough goal that I had worked toward, single-mindedly, for weeks and months.
It was one of the hardest, yet one of the most rewarding, thing’s I’ve done in cycling.
I put it right up there with any of my PRs for one-day events or other such accomplishments on the bike.
That said, my final (I think/hope) post-op checkup with my surgeon is today. And while it will take several more months to fully recover in terms of bone healing and muscle strength, etc., I’m ready to move on from this now.
Riding just for the fun of riding sounds pretty good to me!
John Marsh is the former editor and publisher of RBR Newsletter and RoadBikeRider.com. A rider of "less than podium" talent, he brought our readers consistently useful, informative, entertaining info that helps make them better road cyclists. That's what we're all about here—always have been, always will be. Click to read John's full bio.