Once a bike racer … Part 1

Andy Coggan, circa 1980, blue jersey, Bell helmet, shoulder visible

Andy Coggan, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis, is the foremost researcher on the application of power meter data to bicycle training and fitness. In addition to providing the theoretical framework behind the industry-standard Training Peaks WKO+ software that cyclists and coaches use to track and plan fitness, he has over 140 scientific publications covering everything from the efficacy of beet juice to the use of nitrates in recovering heart patients.

How integral is his work to modern data-driven cycling? He invented and first applied the term “Functional Threshold Power.” The next time you do a 20-minute FTP test and it says “213,” well, you can thank Andy for that.

The first post I ever wrote here at Cycling in the South Bay was about Andy and his exploits as a bike racer in Texas in the 1980s, and I thought it would be interesting to speak with him and get from him a history on the development and use of power meters. He was extremely obliging and sent me a link to an article he had written on the subject.

It was informative and thorough, which was great, but it covered all the topics I’d wanted to discuss, which obviated the need for the interview, so I shifted gears and decided to interview him about his career as a bike racer. It turns out that, as you might expect from someone who won an extremely competitive state championship on the road during the heyday of American road cycling, that Andy was more than a hobby cyclist.

One thing that became clear was that Andy was extremely modest about his talents as a bike racer. For various reasons that he shares, his racing career stopped where it did, but there is little doubt from what follows that he had all the ingredients of a successful professional. The cycling world is fortunate that his career path took him instead into the science of sport.

Seth Davidson: How old were you, where, and what was your first bike race?

Andy Coggan: I ran in junior high, was okay but had injuries, and started racing as a junior at fifteen; my identity was as a cyclist from fifteen until I finished my undergraduate studies. I raced full-time until I was twenty-two or twenty-three and thereafter treated it as hobby. I became an academic vagabond, raced in Texas, raced in Missouri—that was the last time I saw [our mutual friend] Jeff Fields, at an NRC race. I was best at time trials and road races but I was in the crit-heavy Midwest, racing against the Stetinas, Tom Doughty, those guys. As a cyclist I was like a 2:20 marathoner, good enough to dream, but the difference between running 2:20 and Frank Shorter at the time was a chasm. But if you’re a motivated athlete you’re always looking at who’s ahead of you, not at who’s behind, right? My first event was a race around a community college here in Indianapolis. It was my club’s annual race in 1975, I got fourth. I didn’t know what I was doing and got in the break; one of the guys in the break was John Schuster.

Seth Davidson: Did you begin racing seriously after that?

Andy Coggan: I wouldn’t drive hundreds of miles to race, but definitely to races in Chicago, southern Michigan, and Indiana. I didn’t get hooked until my second year, the first time I won a race. It was called the Kentucky Derby of Cycling and Governor’s Cup in Louisville. The race had a climb in it and it rained, and every lap you had a bunch of crazy juniors on the descent flying off into the woods and crashing, and towards the end as we rolled through the start/finish everyone looked around and said, “This is going to be a field sprint,” and eased up, but I kept the same speed and was immediately off the front and got about twenty seconds. As I was going up the hill I looked back and the others were chasing with pain written all over their on their faces, and I thought, “Cool, I’m doing that to them!” That’s what hooked me, that I could put the screws to other people. At the state championships In Texas that I won, I was off the back relieving myself when the break rolled, and they had a minute. They had some San Antonio riders in the break and the SA club was blocking; the race was right outside San Antonio. I thought “I need to be in that break” but no one would go with me because I was unknown, so I set off on my own and caught up to the break. Bob Lowe, he introduced me to everyone else in the break, including Jim Martin, and said “Andy, this is Jim Martin, he’s a really good sprinter.” I don’t recall this next part but Jim claims I immediately took him off the back. Stan Blanton later bridged after a hard 20-mile chase and as soon as he got there I took him off the back because he wouldn’t pull. I didn’t care how long he’d been suffering or needed a rest!

Seth Davidson: What were the best memories of your racing career?

Andy Coggan: That first win and winning the Texas districts. As a masters racer since I couldn’t sprint I had most success at road races and time trials, and racing with a team. I was always trying to win from a break, but if it was a technical crit I worked for my team sprinter. At age 40 I was racing in St. Louis with a friend and won six or seven road races in a row across two seasons; that was a good memory. Speed is a double edged sword, if you have it you use it but if you don’t you have to take risks. I couldn’t sprint, so I had to turn races into time trials, it was like scorched earth: Keep the pace high the whole time and then attack. At the masters level where there’s more heterogeneity between racers that worked. In a 2-hour road race, at the 1.5 hour mark everyone seemed to slow down. I kept attacking, pushing the pace, a break would form, then with ten to go you had to whittle it down. One race I got a gap and dropped my last competitor; I was dead but he wouldn’t give up, chasing me all the way to the finish and every time I looked back that one one guy was still there. But you have no choice if you want to win. I had these painful moments, you remember the pain. When I was fifty a guy in New Mexico was looking for a tandem nationals time trial partner. So we did that in Louisville and I have a nationals jersey; then we went for the national record for our age, 90+ on the tandem, and got it.

Seth Davidson: Why did you quit racing?

Andy Coggan: I tapered out of it. Like many long-term cyclists I’m osteoporatic so I tapered from mass starts to time trials just because of the risk of falling, then raising kids and then didn’t have the motivation to continue. In 2014 Hunter Allen asked me to come to his training camp in Virginia. There’s a climb there, Thunder Ridge, the big day was 100 miles and the climb up Thunder Ridge, so I whipped myself into shape because who wants to be last on the big climb? And I got to thinking about racing again, came back from the camp, started riding for a week, then crashed and compressed a vertebrae that has bothered me ever since. So the racing ship has sailed, that was 2014. That particular fall, I took myself out on a suburban street, it had a 35 mph speed limit, reasonable traffic, and a 3-ft wide shoulder. I was climbing a hill, to the right of the white line and up ahead I saw a stick and thought, “I don’t want to run over that but I don’t want to swerve into traffic,” and for whatever reason in that moment of indecision I ran over the end the stick, flipped it into my front wheel and woke up on the pavement with a priest standing over me. True story. After that I didn’t do a lot of cycling again until the pandemic.

Seth Davidson: Did you race differently pre- power meter and post-power meter?

Andy Coggan: I trained differently, I wouldn’t say I raced differently. To turn the clock way back I discovered physiology while I was a junior in high school and said, “Math, science, exercise? This is what I want to do!” The performance lab at Ball State was world famous so I went there, undergrad and masters on a scholarship. While there I volunteered for various studies, and Dave Kostel wrote an off-season ergometer training program for me in watts in 1978. My first exposure to power as a framework for prescribing training was from Dave’s program in 1978. In 1996 the EDS track team was an early adopter of SRM power meters which I used for a couple of months. I wanted one but they were too expensive and then the PowerTap came out in 1999 and I became a beta tester. It didn’t change my racing because I knew my strengths/weaknesses. I was chasing a masters TT title and had all the TT aero gear, etc. What really changed was that I refined my approach. I simplified it. Jim Martin says, and I’m paraphrasing, “Your power meter is like a compass. Almost any question you have about what should you should do, the power data helps you inform your decision.” I distilled my many workouts into just a few. Being a hobbyist cyclist I was always time-crunched, ten to eleven hours a week was as much as I was willing to commit. And I lived in places where I trained indoors nine months out of the year because it snowed a lot–like it’s doing right now! I managed to get a Schwinn Velodyne on my 30th birthday. I call indoor training erg-wrestling and I’ve been doing it for thirty years now. I still use it. It has a ¼ inch divot in the rear roller, which is made of solid steel, that’s about 200 hours a year for 30 years. I intend to be cremated but jokingly tell my wife to bury the Velodyne with me. I don’t spend a lot of time on it but an hour gives me time to think and listen to music. My routine was to get up at 6, ride for an hour, and when I was racing with the power meter, I really only did one of four workouts.

Seth Davidson: How would your trajectory have differed if you’d started with a power meter at age 15?

Andy Coggan: I was 40 before I got a PowerTap. If I’d had it earlier I would have gotten to the same place much quicker. As a young rider I wanted to understand why other guys were better than I was. I heard of this thing called “VO2 max,” so I found a place and got tested. Mine was 80, so I was like, “Well, that’s not the reason they’re better.” Then I learned there were different muscle types, so I got a muscle biopsy and found out that my muscles were 75% slow twitch. So that wasn’t the reason. It was my innate curiosity about my own performance the drove me into exercise physiology. If I’d had power data in training I would have realized that if I were going to be any good I would have had to get out of the Midwest. In fact, I applied to the Claremont colleges because they had a cycling team, so I was dreaming about weather and bike racing and California, but financially that wasn’t going to happen. When I decided that cycling was no longer my identity and rather a hobby, that was in1984. They were going to have the Olympic trials in Wisconsin, and I was set on going. I didn’t even know where it was, but was going to go there, and that’s when I realized I’d have to move on.

Seth Davidson: Thanks, Andy.

Andy Coggan: You’re welcome.

END

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11 thoughts on “Once a bike racer … Part 1”

  1. Thanks for the interview, but the link to the article on the development of using a power meter doesn’t works for me.

  2. Great interview with Andy! He is a real genius. As one of the Velodyne developers I’m really proud that Andy is such a fan! Cheers.

  3. I thought the whole interview was very interesting, thanks, but Tracy Christenson’s “Why Cycling is Bad for Bone Density…” was especially informative and important. Now my wife wants a punching bag!

  4. Pingback: Once a bike racer … Part 2, Interview with Andy Coggan, Ph.D. – Cycling in the South Bay

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