The three pieces of the performance pie

November 6, 2015 § 12 Comments

I decided to write down everything I know about performance cycling.

There. That sure was quick.

Then I decided to write down the things that, although inappropriate for others or unorthodox, have helped me achieve competitive success on the bike.

Okay, done.

So that leaves me with my observations, and the problem with those is that they’re filtered through a brain that is politely described as “eccentric” and clinically described as “in need of strong medication.” But I regress.

The performance cycling pie has three equally sized slices. Well, they should be equally sized but they aren’t.

I. The training slice.

This is the one that in most pies covers  90% of the plate. I won’t tell you about training because you already know everything there is to know about it, which is why you won Paris-Roubaix last year. But I will tell you about my training slice for 2016 because it meets the only two criteria for a training plan that matter: It’s simple and I can do it.

  1. Don’t tire myself out. For decades I slogged and flogged, never passing up a long ride, never refusing an offer to take an interminable, stupid pull, never hesitating to follow up one hard workout with another, and then after that, another. But no mas. My new rule? If my legs feel flat I’m not riding. Why? Because I am old and wear out quickly, and if you’re over 40, so do you. You know how steel will wear out eventually? We’re not steel.
  2. Two hard efforts a week. Or less.
  3. Avoid any training regimen that involves data, or worse, social media, or worst, data and social media.
  4. Keep my weight at 150.
  5. Study Chinese more.
  6. Continue to finish each day with several tall, cold glasses of un-drunk beer. Recently I’ve been super enjoying not drinking Racer 6 IPA.

II. The aero slice.

This is the piece that some people focus on, but typically only as it concerns equipment.  The current battle for “Most Aero” is being viciously fought between Strava Jr. and Sausage. The one ground down his carbon stem (full carbon, that is) so that the bolts no longer protrude. The other booked a room in the Specialized wind tunnel for his tenth wedding anniversary.

Fully 1/3 of your performance pie should be devoted to aerodynamics. The easy part is buying shit and loading up on 100% carbon components that are full carbon and taking your wife to the wind tunnel. The hard part is riding aero (and ever getting laid again).

Riding aero differs from buying aero, and as an inveterate cheapskate I’ve failed at both. In addition to a lifetime devoted to poor training habits, I’ve also developed bad positioning into an art form. The idiot out on the edge of the peloton, catching all the wind? Me.

The dolt riding three bike lengths behind the last rider? Me.

The clod who’s always on the wrong side of the echelon? Me again.

Unsurprisingly, stupid training and bad positioning go together. The bulk of your aero efforts should be comprised of wheelsucking, something that most cyclists gravitate towards naturally, and selective drafting, something that few riders excel at. None, it should be noted, surpass Vinny D.

Selective drafting is like having to sample fifteen wines before you pick one to drink. You don’t guzzle the whole tasting glass, just like you don’t commit to Twitch Thudpucker’s wheel for half the race. You put a little in your mouth, swish it around, then spit it out. Same with drafting. The wheel you suck should itself be well positioned. It should be ridden by someone who typically makes the split. And it should feature a big old ass, one that is wide and with overtones of blackberry, perhaps even including a tart yet buttery finish that goes well with fish. The rear panel should not be beyond its expiration date a-la-Brad House. And if Kjar isn’t around, you must learn to never follow riders who are smaller than you.

This can be a challenge, because little people are often the best racers. No matter. Spit them out and ride behind the bigger butt.

One difficulty I have always had in wheel selection is the delusion that I am small. Because I sometimes end up with the climbers, I mistakenly assume that I’m like them. I’m not. They are tiny and delicate and cute and you want to cuddle them and hook them up to a cheeseburger I.V. bag. But I am not. I am long and stretched out and a kind of elongated wind sail. So sitting behind tiny people doesn’t work for me, and henceforth I will not sit behind them. You shouldn’t either. What you will find, however, is that tiny people are constantly sitting on YOU. Use this to your advantage by throwing back your rear wheel, veering unpredictably, or stopping for no reason. Think PREZ.

The final piece of aero riding is navigating within the pack. This isn’t that hard (I’m told), but it is terrifying. The lugs who occupy the middle of the pack are using 78.3% less energy than I am as I slog over on the side in the wind, but they are scary because they have head tattoos, pierced teeth, facial scars, jangling ear dangles made of brass that play jingle bells against their top tubes, and they don’t cry when their bars bump. If you can develop the steel nerves to sit in this viper’s den of angry killers, you will arrive at the finish fresh and rested. Good luck with that.

III. The strategy slice.

For a very few riders, this is 90% of the pie, and they always win a few races a year. Do you know Gibby Hatton? He shows up to races with no teammates, not very fit, and always wins a few. Why? Because he has perfected aero pack riding and because he knows exactly when to pedal hard–once, in the last 200 meters, sitting fourth or fifth wheel in the last turn.

The rest of us had strategiotomies at an early age and are more or less profoundly stupid and incapable of thinking during a race. That’s too bad (for us, not Gibby) because it means that at no time in the race do we actually try to answer this question: “How am I going to win today?” [Note: “Go from the gun and solo the whole race” is not a strategy, just like “Be president of the United States” is not a career plan.]

Why are we so stupid? Because strategy involves constantly evaluating your “plan to win” against what’s happening on the ground. It’s a great idea to attack on the final climb unless there’s already a break three minutes up the road. It’s a great idea to come around Charon at the finish but 30 other people have the exact same plan and most of them believe in open carry. It’s a great idea to splat on your face in the last ten meters but Prez already has that sewn up. Plus, it’s not really a good idea.

Although dynamically strategic thinking is impossible for me, it is possible to pick one concept and stick to it. For example, “Don’t be the strongest one in the break.” Or “Don’t lead out the sprunt.” Or “Pay off the best rider.” That last one generally works very well.

So that’s it. Go forth and win. And remember who taught you how.



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§ 12 Responses to The three pieces of the performance pie

  • dangerstu says:

    You make some very good points, I plan on ignoring them all and not racing crits.

  • Strava Junior says:

    “But I regress.” Love it.

    My added $0.02 on aero: work on your aero positioning, given that the vast majority of your drag is your body – not the bike. It takes flexibility and certain muscles (e.g., in your neck) need to be trained to be able to hold yourself in an unnatural but aero position (and that allows you to see where you’re going) while putting out power and while fatigued.

    Of course, sanity should prevail. Unfortunately, too many cyclists saw Sagan win worlds and now everyone seems to be practicing descending and pedaling ball sac on top tube. Avoid those guys!

    • fsethd says:

      Take this one to the bank, folks, from a guy who provides the draft of a bent gnat and has the KOM’s to prove it.

  • Brian in VA says:

    I like me “a big old ass, one that is wide and with overtones of blackberry, perhaps even including a tart yet buttery finish.”

    Howling with laughter over this and recognizing that cars often line up behind me. Do I need to lose some weight or just learn to ride more “aero?”

    • fsethd says:

      Ride more aero and slam on your brakes periodically to keep the cars from benefiting from your Windschatten.

  • Big old ass…I’m dying over here 😂😂😂

  • Tom Paterson says:

    The bigger the cushion, the easier the pushin’…

    Ah, an um astute (“having the ability to accurately assess* people or situations and turn this to one’s advantage”) observation.

    “Pick one you can’t see around, and hang on”.

    *they’re everywhere; the choice is wide

    • fsethd says:

      Pick one you can’t see around!! Yes! Corollary: If you, in full hunched over crouch, can see clear over their back and head and up the road a mile, choose another wheel. Failing that, another race. Failing that, another sport.

  • Winemaker says:

    Three things:
    One, steel doesn’t wear out (unless by friction, but that is the removal of matter…(aw, fug that explanation…too academic) …what happens is it catastrophically fails, and you get about a millisecond of warning most of the time. Carbon takes longer to fail, and aluminum bends a while before it fails…all materials fail differently.
    Two. The wine talk got me thirsty. I know it is 2:35 AM, but I am about to do some work in the vineyard (farmers get up early) and I think I may just ‘taste’ a bit before putting on the headlamp.
    Three. I had a long talk with our new dog yesterday…this adopted 4 year old Cujo (120 lbs) wants to meet some of your South Bay climbing aces and chew the crap out of them. That,my slender ol’ buddy, will put YOU in the climber’s jersey, at least through attrition. Believe me, this is true, I watched “Lucky” eat last night, and I will NOT get my arm within a foot of his mouth; the consumption of anything edible is immediate and horrifying. He is cute, though, and New Girl will like him.

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