Training for Bike Racing – The Basics

I received a question from a reader last week and I wanted to answer it here.  I think it is a pretty common situation for many cyclists to find themselves in this time of year.

As a beginning racer I’m trying to get a good plan established for this next season. Living in California provides decent riding weather even in the winter months and I want to capitalize on that good fortune. I don’t do cycle cross and am looking for some direction as to how to best ready myself for the spring. Any recommendations on training plans, books or websites?

First, I would recommend The Cyclist’s Training Bible by Joe Friel.  This was the book that got me started with training for cycling.  It is very good at teaching basic principles of training and periodization.  There are different types of periodization, and this book describes the ‘classic’ approach to training for cycling: long, easy miles in the winter, and harder workouts as the race season approaches.

Second, to address the specific question of riding over the winter:  getting a good base of fitness in the winter should be possible in all but the most extreme climates of the US.  Here in Colorado the high temperatures average just over freezing for December and January, but the roads are often dry and training is adequate.  I have a lot of cold weather gear and ride down to about 20 degrees.  Riders in rainy climates tend to have a ‘rain bike’ that can get grimy and wet constantly, and are usually equipped with fenders.

One of the biggest mistakes I see riders make is to be over-zealous in their efforts.  When you’re new to the idea of ‘training’ rather than simply riding, it can be hard to notice the body’s subtle signals of accumulated fatigue.  Even experienced racers are prone to riding too much.  Even last season as a Cat 2, I had difficulty riding more than 12 quality hours per week without taking a few days off to recover afterward.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t or can’t do more than that, but be aware that riding more won’t always make you faster.

Another thing to keep in mind is that Friel’s training regimen starts 24 weeks before high priority racing.  Domestic Pros looking to the Tour of California in early May (28 weeks away) have just begun their first phase of training, or will soon.  Many areas with colder climates won’t get into the heart of the season until June, July, and August, so training can start later (January, or February).  If you live in Colorado and don’t race ‘cross, I’d suggest doing other things off your bike to stay fit through December.  Patience is critical in success for cycling.

In areas with racing in early spring, it would be appropriate to start training now if you’re so inclined.  The focus of the first phase is to build an endurance base.  These are long, steady rides which train your body to pedal efficiently, burn fat for fuel, and have systemic aerobic effects.  The rides are steady, staying seated on rolling hills, and pedaling as much of the ride as possible.  I find the pace to be slightly harder than I would voluntarily ride if I was going for an easy ride for fun, but not hard enough to make conversation difficult.  Strength training and spinning drills are also usually included in this phase.

Last year, after two months of training similar to what is described above, I had a breakthrough performance in the first sanctioned race of the season.  The race is a 20 minute time trial.  It is very counter intuitive that 4 hour ‘easy’ rides would prepare me for a all-out 20 minute effort.  Obviously I was able to TT even faster after more specific training later in the season, but a few weeks of focused endurance rides can do amazing things.

To summarize I would recommend The Cyclists Training Bible and building a training plan as recommended in the book.  I’ll be building my training plan soon and will start training in the second week of January.  Also, be sure to keep in mind that you will likely be better off doing the minimum amount of training to see benefit, rather than the maximum you can handle without over-doing it.  I saw plenty of riders last winter doing 20+ hours per week, only to have their season sidelined with an early season injury or mediocre fitness.

About Russell

I have been racing bicycles for a decade. This blog will chronicle my efforts as a Category 2 road racer and lining up with the PROs.
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8 Responses to Training for Bike Racing – The Basics

  1. Che says:

    Thanks for the post. Very helpful. I am thinking about getting into racing next season. Do you think it is possible to be competitive in cat 4 with only 5-7 hours of training per week? I have to balance a family with 3 kids and cycling, of course. Good luck in your recovery.

    • says:

      Firstly, I would say that “You don’t know until you try”.

      And secondly, “It depends”. Some factors that may help would be level of experience as a cyclist and/or racer, overall fitness and/or history of competitive athletics, and simply genetics.

      Another book to look into is The Time Crunched Cyclist by Chris Carmichael. He argues that traditional training methods don’t work as well when weekly hours aren’t enough to stress the system properly. And also that many cyclists (especially those with shorter races, like a Cat 4), can benefit from more intensity in their training year round.

      One of the keys to getting faster is consistency in training. Like dieting, those with a plan (any plan) will see the best results.

  2. Mike says:

    It’s your lucky day!!! :) First off, Happy Thanksgiving. I think I saw you on 36 today riding towards Boulder, and I almost turned around and threw down 1300 watts for one hour for an epic battle!!!! haha. Nice day for a ride up lefthand, hope you had fun out there. take care

    • says:

      Yup, I was headed back after a quick jaunt up Old Stage (Don’t tell the Doc… descents aren’t allowed…)

      It was crazy out there! (You may have noticed my tweet) I saw just about everyone in Boulder out this afternoon.

  3. says:

    I’ll take a shot at answering ” it is possible to be competitive in cat 4 with only 5-7 hours of training per week.” I’m a 55-year-old perennial Cat IV with 4 teenage children, a full-time job running a non-profit, and a suite of volunteer activities on behalf of foster kids. I started racing when I turned 50. I ride, mostly “junk” miles, 3 times a week. My only interval training is racing criteriums. My only hill work-outs are road racing. Competitive? No, I’ll never win. But, buoyed by a firm dedication to never putting my face into the wind without a purpose, I have fun and occasionally record a top-10 placing in local races.

  4. Che says:

    Thanks for the advice/encouragement. I think I need to give it a try and see what happens. I just finished Chris Carmichael’s The Ultimate Ride and plan to use some form of his training methodologies. It was a great day for a ride today!

  5. Chris says:

    Thank you for responding to my inquiry Russel. Very well received and a candid look into the mind of a true racer. I was especially intrigued about your advice to the over-zealous rider like myself. Like most fathers of little ones who are crunched for time (but maybe not as crunched as Andy. Yikes! Hats off to you bro.) I can only be certain of getting in 5-7 hours a week. Four of which come from the spin classes I teach three times a week (which don’t put quite the same stress on the body as the road bike). So my training on Saturday’s with the local hammer heads has always been the same; hang on for dear life and don’t get dropped earlier than I did the week before. Outside of being a total kick in the pants fun ride I don’t think this style of riding is helping me ready for a more dedicated season of racing.
    I’m looking forward to diving into the books you recommended and creating a plan that will suite me best. Thanks again for the well thought out reply. Hope your recovery is going well.

    • says:

      Your welcome.

      If you’re teaching spin classes, it sounds like you probably have some athletic history which will probably help you a lot if you want try racing with a lesser time commitment. Good luck.

      The recovery is going well and I’ll see the Ortho doc on Monday and have an update then.

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