mercier winter training

Scott Mercier: Winter Training Tips from a Retired Pro Cyclist

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By Scott Mercier,
CTS Contributing Editor, US Olympian, Retired pro cyclist

Winter was always my favorite season as a kid. Powder days and ski racing were what I craved. It helped having skiing as P.E. class school and a lift just 4 blocks from our house in Telluride. When I discovered the bike, however, my preference switched from winter to the warmer seasons. These days I live in the mountains again, just downriver from Aspen, but cycling ­– not skiing – is still my favorite activity. It’s not even close. But I do find ways to enjoy the cold and still focus on building and maintaining fitness for cycling and life.

One of the problems with being fast on a bike is that it doesn’t always lead to the healthiest outcomes for life in general. For example, Chris Froome may have been the best Grand Tour rider of the last generation, but his extreme fitness in some areas meant less development in others. I’d bet he struggled to carry a suitcase.

Regardless of whether you’re cycling to become an age-group champion, to get Strava segments, or for pure enjoyment, I find winter to be a great time to do something different. Doing intervals on an indoor trainer when it’s dark may keep you fast, but too much of that may not do wonders for your mental health.

My objectives are far different than they were 2-plus decades ago, but I still use winter as a time to reflect and plan: personally, professionally, and athletically.

My athletic goals now revolve around making sure most of the locals can’t drop me too badly, controlling my weight, and retaining overall body strength. I’m no longer singularly focused on being fast on a bike.

There are three specific activities that help me get through these dark months: skiing, lifting weights, and riding. And by riding, I mean outside riding, not hammering away on an indoor trainer. I haven’t ridden a trainer in years, and I don’t intend to start again now. I have too many flashbacks of Coach Carmichael yelling at me that, “This isn’t supposed to be fun!” (He meant the intense intervals I was struggling with, not cycling in general. That, he agreed, was supposed to be fun.)

Skiing:

Alpine, Nordic, and backcountry are all snow activities I enjoy and that keep me fit. Ripping lap after lap on the gondi is a great anaerobic activity, skinning up Ajax or Tiehack is a great Zone 2 or 3 energy burner, and Nordic skiing can be both anaerobic and aerobic depending upon the terrain. Anyone who tells you alpine skiing isn’t a workout doesn’t know how to ski. It’s a great workout and it’s great fun.

Weightlifting:

We put a gym in our garage, and it’s been a life saver. I’ve never been that “weight lifter guy”, but I’ve found that lifting two or three days a week is great for my overall health as well as my cycling power. I only started lifting a few years ago and I wished I’d started much earlier in life. A welcome side effect to winter weightlifting was the power I was able to generate on the pedals. While I rode a fair amount last summer, I really didn’t train. However, I was still able to get more than a few Strava PRs and even two KOM’s on some shorter segments. I weigh around 190 pounds, so the long climbs crush me. But through brute force, the power I was able to generate for 3-5 minutes was higher than it had been for quite some time. I attributed the increased power output to the time I spent doing deadlifts and squats. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll even be able to bench press my actual weight? Of course, I’d need to lose about 70 pounds first.

Riding:

When I was still racing, I spent a lot of time riding in the winter and one of my favorite activities was always riding my mountain bike on snow packed roads. The fat-tire bikes are cool, but unless you’re riding on trails, you really don’t need one. You can ride your regular old mountain bike. I find that winter mountain bike rides are some of the most enjoyable rides of the year. Maybe it’s because of the novelty, but I really love it.

When it’s really cold outside, I tend to keep my effort level to high Zone 1 or low to mid Zone 2. You really don’t want to break too much of a sweat or you’ll get cold on a descent. Additionally, the cold air can wreak havoc on your lungs if you go too hard. Bring two hats and two sets of gloves as well so that you have dry gear for the descent. You’ll probably have the roads to yourself, but make sure you’re visible, because cars won’t be expecting to see cyclists. Only a crazy person would ride a bicycle in the winter; but then most of us who ride are a bit crazy anyway!

Regardless of how you spend your winter, take time to reflect, show gratitude, and be kind.

Good riding!


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Comments 6

  1. Two hats are key. Even for days on the flats a second hat at the turn around is great and a third hat if you drive to the start.

  2. Great ideas. I just recently began, packing an extra hat for the cool down/ after the coffee stop😀. Yep, Dead lifts are GREAT. They seem to strengthen the glutes, and hamstrings. I think I’ll need those biking Mt. Lemmon w/ CTS in February 2022😀

    1. At 6’3”, his 190 LB is quite reasonable for someone with a bit of upper body muscle. At 5’9” and decades ago, when I could pull close to 500 in a deadlift, I was near 170. Now more like 154, I’d still be considered “fat” to be a climber, but that’s a rarified breed, and normal folks look at me as skinny.

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