It’s Classics season in Europe. This is one of the best times to be a cycling fan, but not always the best time to be a pro cyclist. With the benefit of hindsight I have great memories of the Spring Classics. I loved the history and the fact I had the opportunity to race in the Tour of Flanders, Ghent-Wevelgem, Paris-Roubaix, Fleche-Wallone, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and others. And fortunately, time has eased the memories of the pain and brutality of those races.
I was talking this week with a friend and fellow former professional cyclist earlier this week about racing The Classics. It was fun to reminisce and realize that despite racing in different time periods, some things about those races never change. Here are three big challenges I remember from the Classics, and some tips you can use to improve your ability to handle these same challenges in your rides and events:
There’s a reason that biggest races of the Spring Classics are longer than 250km. There are a lot of riders who can win races between 175-200 kilometers. There are fewer that can win races that are 200-240 kilometers. And once you get beyond 250 kilometers there are only a handful of athletes who have what it takes. When the distance – let alone the climbs, the wind, and the cobblestones – is a big factor in the outcome of a race, you have to be careful with your efforts. You can’t afford to waste energy you’ll definitely need later, but it’s not easy to save energy when you’re charging down the road at 60km/h fighting for position before a narrow, cobbled climb.
For amateur racers and event participants, having a strong finish depends on how you manage your efforts early on. Contribute to the pacemaking and ride smart, but early on don’t throw down huge efforts that go nowhere. Be patient when you’re fresh and you’ll be rewarded much later when you’re able to launch moves in the final third of the race or you feel strong and powerful through the last hour of a century ride.
In our “Staff Meeting” rides from the office in Colorado Springs, we always have the coaches who are less powerful or less fit sit on or skip some pulls in the first half of the ride so they can contribute more to the second half. That way everyone gets a great workout and it’s easier to maintain a steady and quick pace.
My hands ache just thinking about cobblestones. It’s been long-told advice that going faster over the cobblestones is preferable because it smooths out the ride a bit. That’s true, but you also want to ride fast over the cobbles because it means spending less time on cobblestones. The best way to ride over any rough surface is to stay in the saddle and use a bigger gear and lower cadence than you normally would. This is especially true if you’re going to accelerate, because if you stand to accelerate your rear wheel will bounce and skip.
One of the workouts my coaches and I have used with athletes preparing for rough-surface races – from cobbled classics to gravel grinders and ‘cross races – is Stomps. Here’s how they work: As you’re riding down the road at about 12-15mph, shift into a big gear (53×11-14 or 50×11-12), put your hands on the tops of the bars and bring your shoulders down so your elbows are bent at close to a 90-degree angle (or closer to 90 degrees than straight), and then STOMP on the pedals for 20 seconds. Spin easy for at least two minutes and repeat up to 10 times in a workout.
During Stomp intervals you’ll be accelerating against a high resistance, but not from a complete standstill. These intervals are great for developing the power to accelerate out of a corner, surge on a climb, or power through a sandpit.
What I remember most about the cobbles of Roubaix is the speed at which we hit them, especially that first section. Everyone wanted to be up front, so the speed just ratcheted up and up and up. At first you felt like you were floating over the cobbles, because you were going so fast and your legs were fresh. Then you slowed down just a bit and you went from floating to getting pummeled. The best thing you could do was sit back in the saddle, relax your hands, and focus on keeping that big gear turning.
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You would think that a strong tailwind straight from the back would be paradise in the peloton. In reality, a little tailwind is nice but a strong tailwind can be terrifying. With the draft and the tailwind working together, the back of the group has the ability to steamroll into the front of the group. As a result, the pack spreads from curb to curb and the speeds rise until this insanely tight pack is ripping down a flat road at 40-plus miles an hour. When the peloton is more strung out there’s less risk of a crash. When the pack is tight but moving slower in a headwind the consequences aren’t as bad. But when you’re in big pack with a strong tailwind you just get a sense that something terrible is about to happen. You also know that when it does happen there will be virtually nothing you can do about it. I remember crashes in those conditions where everything seems fine one second and the next you’re stacking into a wall of riders – no time to think, to save yourself, or to slow down.
No matter which direction the wind is coming from, you will be more successful if you’re comfortable riding in tight spaces and dealing with being bumped. You have to keep your upper body loose so you can absorb impacts from the riders next to you or you can lean on them a bit if need be. You have to get comfortable with the fact that the riders around you aren’t always going to – or be able to – hold a straight line. When you’re confident and comfortable in a tight pack, you won’t panic when you rub tires with someone or your handlebar gets smacked by another rider’s hip.
Whether it’s in a race, the local group ride, or a charity event, riders who are uncomfortable in the pack get dropped when it gets windy. The stress of staying in the draft and staying upright wears them out, or better riders simply move them out of position until there are no more wheels to sit on.
If you’re a fan of professional bike racing, mark your calendars and find a place – online or on TV – to watch or follow these races:
- March 30: Ghent-Wevelgem
- April 6: Tour of Flanders
- April 13: Paris-Roubaix
- April 20: Amstel Gold
- April 23: La Fleche Wallone
- April 27: Liege-Bastogn-Liege
Have a Great Weekend!
Carmichael Training Systems