cobblestones roubaix

How to Take Cycling Performance from Ordinary to Extraordinary

As sports fans we are accustomed to witnessing extraordinary performances, like CTS Athlete Alison Jackson’s victory in last weekend’s Paris-Roubaix Femmes. (Stay tuned for Coach Adam Pulford’s analysis of her training and race data on Tuesday!) Huge wins are inspirational. Many cyclists go out after watching an amazing cycling race like Paris-Roubaix and have storming rides of their own. But those highlight reels can be a double-edged sword. They can delude some amateur athletes into thinking that extraordinary performances just happen.

Extraordinary doesn’t just happen because you’re fit. It happens because you’ve planned to be extraordinary.

What does that mean? When you have a very specific competition goal, be it the local criterium, a State Championship, a World Championship, or a trip to Ironman Kona, you have to realize that a good day – meaning a day when you perform normally or slightly above average – isn’t going to cut it.

Going from a good day to an extraordinary day is usually less about fitness than it is about your decisions. It’s in your head. Fitness is important, and you want to be optimally fit and rested going into a goal event. However, your power at threshold won’t separate you from the competition.Your competitors are fit, too. To win on the big day, you need to be prepared to do something extraordinary – and that preparation comes from inside your head.

How do you prepare to be extraordinary?

1. Learn more about yourself as a competitor

Blithely telling yourself, “I’m going to attack and win!” is like saying, “I’m going to be rich!” What have you done that gives you any indication that you’ll be successful, especially when the pressure is high? Most athletes prepare for the physical demands of competition, but fail to prepare for the actual competition. This is why we teach CTS Coaches to design a series of progressive challenges for an athlete.

Not everything that a coach does to improve performance results in improved power or pace numbers. A lot of what we do is teach athletes to succeed by helping them discover both their strengths and the depths of their reserves. At some point early in an amateur bike racer’s career, a coach may instruct an athlete to attack until they either win or get dropped. It’s not a great long-term strategy, but it’s a learning experience.  Athletes need to learn how many times they can attack, and how deep they can dig and still keep going. The result is almost always that athletes attack themselves right out the back of the pack, but they learn – many for the first time – that they have the strength to race aggressively. From there we can create a pathway to learn how to gauge the timing, conditions, and frequency of those efforts.

2. Plan to race to your strengths.

You have to start goal events with a plan. Going into a race with the attitude of, “Well, I’ll see what happens,” means nothing is going to happen; or at least nothing you’re involved in. When I say ‘plan to race to your strengths’, I mean have a plan for how you’re going to leverage your strength to make the finale. Are you going for the solo attack? The last-lap flyer? The field sprint? Even when you know the plan is likely to change, you’re still better off having a plan to start with. We’d rather an athlete stand on the start line thinking something along the lines of, “With 20km to go, I’m going to leave you all behind on the final climb and solo in for the win.” That’s a more productive starting point than, “I wonder what’s going to happen today?”

3. Be opportunistic

You often hear a successful endurance athlete answer the question, “Why did you make your move when you did?” with, “I just knew it was the right time to go.” How did they know? Did they really know, or does it just look like a good move in hindsight because it happened to work? The Spring Classics season is just wrapping up. Each of the biggest Classics has an iconic place everyone knows there’s likely to be an attack. In Milan-San Remo it’s on the final climb of the Poggio. The Tour of Flanders has the Oude Kwaremont. In Paris-Roubaix everyone knows they need to hit the Forest of Arenberg at the front, and that Carrefour de l’Arbre is likely to be decisive.

Paris-Roubaix Femmes

During the 2023 Paris-Roubaix Femmes avec Zwift, Alison Jackson and her breakaway companions had about a 1:20 lead just before the Camphin-en-Pévèle sector of cobbles. The duo of Camphin-en-Pévèle and Carrefour de l’Arbre sectors were the most significant technical challenges in the final 20 kilometers of the race. Jackson accelerated hard before Camphin-en-Pévèle to drive the pace, but the chase behind kept coming. By 11 kilometers to go, the lead for the seven-woman breakaway was down to 20 seconds, then a mere 10 seconds with 7 kilometers to go.

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At the end of a hard Classic, riders eye each other closely for signs of fatigue. If a rider gets gapped but manages to get back to the wheel, that’s a tell. Rest or no rest before the next challenge, that rider is not going to get stronger. Jackson kept driving the pace, despite doing more than her share of the work, because the opportunity to sprint for the win from a smaller group was better than letting the chasers come back.

All athletes have the ability to do the extraordinary, but very few take the time to learn and prepare to be extraordinary. Winning is a skill that doesn’t always come automatically with increased fitness. And if you have the passion for winning, you owe it to yourself to learn how to win.

Chris Carmichael
CTS Founder and Chief Endurance Officer

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Comments 10

  1. I have been training in exclusively in zones and looking at my first race. Do I turn my zones off for the race and race, it feels like I would place limits on my performance if I am zone focused, what is the approach here to remain as you say opportunistic or attacking the race?

    1. FWIW, Neville — and perhaps this is becuase of my relative inexperience — I find relying on my power numbers during a race – particularly a crit – distracting and limiting. I do find them helpful in time trials.

  2. You have to really,really,really want it. So much that you can taste it, feel it, see it, touch it and know that your not going home without it. Every cell in your body.

  3. Loved your inspiring words that challenge us to reach for extraordinary. Shared them with my indoor cycling class this morning and they appreciated them, too. Thank you!

    1. Post

      Great question. The answer is no. Speaking as one of the coaches I would say the diversity of athletes we get to work with is one of the biggest benefits of being a CTS Coach. Getting off a call with a driven competitor and talking next to an athlete who just wants to be fit enough to enjoy a week-long father-son cycling tour is a lot of fun and teaches coaches how to communicate effectively with and inspire a wider variety of athletes.

      I think the common thread we see among CTS Athletes is the pursuit of a goal. It could be a competitive goal or something experiential or even existential, but there is something they are working toward. – Jim Rutberg, CTS Coach

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