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Train in the Winter, Win in the Spring

By Sam Krieg,
Peaks Coaching Group Coach

Peacks Coaching Group

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A deck of cards is built like the purest of hierarchies,
with every card a master to those below it, a lackey to those above it.
Ely Culbertson

Paris–Roubaix: The Inside Story

Les Woodland's book Paris-Roubaix: The Inside Story - All the bumps of cycling's cobbled classic is available as an audiobook here. For the print and Kindle eBook versions, just click on the Amazon link on the right.

Sam Krieg writes:

Training in the winter for bike racing is a brutal activity that very few people can comprehend: hours spent suffering quietly so you can emerge in the spring ready to race and brawl against all your rivals and mental demons. I live in Idaho, which means I get to choose where to go outside and brave the elements or suffer for hours on the trainer. Neither is very pleasant, but each and every one of my winter training experiences builds a foundation for the coming road season. The one thing I know for sure is that the harder and longer I train, the more indestructible I become.

I once saw a great quote on a cycling blog: “Train so you can make yourself harder to kill.” On my way down into the basement to train the same day, I picked up a new deck of playing cards, took out the promotional cards, ripped them easily in half, and tossed them in the trash. There were of course 54 cards left. It struck me that this particular workout I was dreading was just one card in a deck of many. That didn’t mean the workout didn’t have value; it meant this workout was an opportunity for me to “stack my deck” for road season. Today’s training might create the one-second gap I’ll need later on the top of a climb or to win a TT. Today’s workout might also crush me and make me rethink why I do this sport. (Most of my workouts do a bit of both.)

I got on the trainer that day and tried to tear the entire deck of cards in half. I couldn’t do it. I’ve seen a YouTube video where a guy ripped a phonebook in half, so I know it’s possible. But I’ve also seen Fabian Cancellara time trial at 50k an hour, and I can’t do that, either. The two promotional cards I’d thrown away were easy to tear; they took only a few watts at most. Destroying the deck would take power I didn’t yet possess, and time trialing at close to 50 kph would take a bit more work too.

Thinking back to the last year’s road season, though, I realized that the epic winter of training I’d done before it allowed me to do the same thing on a different level. I certainly hadn’t become world class or starred in my own YouTube video, but I did have a few magical days on the bike. My deck of cards was definitely more robust than some of the guys I was racing against, and in a few cases I was able to destroy a few others who in the past have destroyed me. I moved myself up in the hierarchy and created a few lackeys along the way.

If you think of a field of bike racers like a bunch of playing cards, this starts to be a valid training theory. Just like a full deck of cards, the field is hard to rip in half, but during the race you have many opportunities to play the game and manipulate it in your favor. If you can’t climb and the race finishes on a hill, you’d better get in a break. If you can climb, don’t panic; you can win from the break or the field. If you want to win, you have to be prepared to lose. The great thing about bike racing is that you can win even if you aren’t the strongest; you just have to know how to play the game to optimize your strengths.

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Here’s the trick: don’t handicap yourself by not coming to the race prepared. If you were dropped the year before on the climb, you’d better show up lean and ready to rumble. You have all winter to prepare. Don’t waste the opportunity.

We train hard day in and day out with the goal of becoming winners. In the short run you might lose a ton. You’ll have some terrible workouts and results. These losses will test you more than any good workout or race you’ve had before, but bad wattage during a workout or test is the best medicine in the long term. Training hard will make you more consistent. The more consistent you become, the more durable you’ll be. I don’t have the highest five-minute or twenty-minute power, but I race well almost every weekend, and I can sustain my peak wattages on a regular basis, regardless of whether I’m at mile ten or mile one hundred. Just like everyone, I struggle early in races when everyone’s fresh, but after a few hours I start to feel like a beast. I can often make up my own rules late in the race. It’s as if three-fourths of the deck is gone; now I’m playing with just a few racers, and that’s when the real game begins. I know there will be four face cards and a joker left. All five have a shot to win, but often it’s the rider who pulls the ace from a back pocket who wins the race.

I remember racing to the KOM against a particular rider I was sure I’d beat. We’d gapped 100+ racers, and I was definitely riding at a new peak five-minute power. We were ten meters from the KOM line when he stood up and humiliated me. In just ten meters he shredded my deck of cards. That experience is definitely one I will not forget. I didn’t have a bad day or bad legs; his better was just better than mine.

This makes me think about my past decade of training and racing. I’ve had a ton of good and bad moments. I have thousands of power files, and every one of them tells a story. And they all make me a bit harder to kill. I realize now that my current fitness is a sum of all those years. They enable me to survive hard training sessions day after day. At times they’ve allowed me to ride the break into pieces, and occasionally they’ve dealt me the sweetest hand.

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Even the bad workouts and races have a place in my deck. You’ll notice there are a lot more plain cards with numbers in a deck than ones with pretty pictures. The pretty pictures are the rare cards. They can win you tons of money in Vegas or in the back room of a smoky bar. They’re the cards you wish you were dealt every day. But to be honest, it’s the losing and stress of losing that makes winning such a cool experience. If your goal is to always feel good on your bike and always win, you won’t get into bike racing. You’ll stick with tours and local group rides. You’ll find events where you’re the strongest and can crush people. It’s like going to Vegas and betting a penny.

As you sit on your trainer or ride in the freezing cold this winter, I want you to think of each ride as just one card. This one ride will not make you a pro or win you a national championship, but it might be part of what will make you the beast in the breakaway that rides everyone’s legs off, or it might be the one second that will win or lose you a time trial. Don’t expect every ride to be perfect. Don’t be shocked when the watts are awful. Be excited when things go your way. You need tons of good and bad rides before you truly become an excellent bike racer. The longer and harder you train will enable you to stack the deck, and eventually you’ll be playing with five aces and a few jokers up your sleeve. From the outside your stellar performance will look like a damn magic trick, but like all magic, it’s the hard work put in by the magician that makes it look real.

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