Once a bike racer … Part 2, Interview with Andy Coggan, Ph.D.

February 23, 2021 Comments Off on Once a bike racer … Part 2, Interview with Andy Coggan, Ph.D.

A couple of weeks ago I had a great conversation with Andy Coggan, father of the infamous phrase “Functional Threshold Power” and creator of the diabolical training levels associated therewith. We spoke about his athletic background and followed it up with a later discussion about training with power. His book, co-authored with Hunter Allen and Steve McGregor, remains the classic text on training with a power meter.

Seth Davidson: Let’s talk about training with power. Does it make sense to divide its application into groups such as casual riders, sport/competitors, and professionals? Or is the application the same for everyone?

Andy Coggan: It’s not the same for everybody but it’s more dependent on your orientation towards numbers. Even at the pro level there are cyclists who don’t want to dive into the data heavily and just turn it over to the coach. And you’ll find busy people who aren’t racing and don’t have enough time to train but are fascinated by numbers.

Seth Davidson: Are there any people who you would recommend not to train with power?

Andy Coggan: If I were a coach I would be sensitive to how an athlete perceives it. Part of it is a matter of presentation. I went for a run with a friend who was checking his watch at every mile marker, “Just for information, not for concern,” he said. There are people who think everything is a time trial. Way back I used to refer to the power meter as a cruel mistress indeed. You’re trying so hard and something is flashing on your bars saying, “You suck.” If you have an athlete who can’t take the periodic negative feedback and not cut himself slack, I can see how that would be detrimental to them. I know that some have argued that beginning riders should not train with power, that they should pay attention to their sensations, but I don’t believe that, because there is the objective measurement of your actual power output and your perception of how that is, and the two go together. Charles Howe used to say, “Power calibrates perceived exertion, perceived exertion modulates power.” You know what 200 watts feels like if you’ve trained with power. On the days when there’s a big discrepancy between how it feels and what the actual output is, that’s a sign there’s something wrong. Same if it’s a no-chain day, time to go for the win … or check the zero offset to your power meter! I don’t think that the data works against perceived effort. They’d never say that in another sport, like running, “Don’t call out their splits so they can appreciate the effort!” How would they know the effort without the splits? For most people it’s innate, we have a central nervous system to tell us how we’re doing, the power meter calibrates that.

Seth Davidson: What can training with power NOT do?

Andy Coggan: Chris Mayhew’s great line comes to mind. “It’s a power meter, it’s not a bolt-on motor.” This was before e-bikes, of course! You still have to train and it depends on your talent. I’d develop racers into three camps. Those who fairly quickly figure out how to properly prepare themselves for races and what tactics work for them. There’s another group at the opposite end, they’re clueless. They’re out there flailing away, having fun, they have no real in-depth understanding of how best to train themselves. They jump from one training program to another always looking for the next magic bullet. The people in between those two groups figure it out eventually but it takes longer than the first group. Those are the people that a power meter is most helpful for. You train a certain way, and then look at the results, it’s working or it’s not. You use a tactic and find out that you bit off more than you can chew and you adapt from there. Access to power meter data doesn’t make the fastest faster but it helps more people get fast. And this evolutionary pressure rises all boats, now there are three times as many people competing at your level. It does drive performance higher by widening the base.

Seth Davidson: What is the application for this middle group of riders?

Andy Coggan: Per Jim Martin, having access to data informs your decision making in so many ways. You know how track coaches will practice standing starts by having you do a couple of starts, then send you off to change to a bigger gear, do a couple more, go off and change to a bigger gear, etc.? Sounds good but in fact that particular method is meaningless. I gave a track webinar for power data and track racing, and the power data shows that with standing starts a maximal effort is a maximal effort and it doesn’t matter what gear you start in. If you have the data and are imaginative about how to use it there are multiple ways to leverage that information to have better workouts. I made a list of the top ten things I learned from using a power meter: The top three were Specificity, Specificity!, SPECIFICITY. Learning how specific the adaptations to training might be, that was the thing and it wasn’t hammered home until I could measure the output. Also I learned that I need to rest more. I discovered a successful approach to crits and road racing due to having access to power data.

Seth Davidson: How did you come up with “functional threshold power” a/k/a FTP as an anchor point?

Andy Coggan: Most people have heard of lactate threshold, a non-invasive indicator of muscular metabolic strain. There’s nothing magic about any point, it’s a non-linear increase, but we like to treat it as a point where lactate goes up. As you go over that intensity, lactate will accumulate and then level off. Ultimately there is a metabolic steady state at which you can maintain homeostasis for prolonged periods of time. Go a little bit harder and things spin out of control quite quickly. If you’re a trained cyclist the power output that corresponds to metabolic steady state is something that you can maintain for about 50 minutes. That’s about how long it takes to race a 40km TT, so quite pragmatically if you want to estimate your steady state power that becomes an anchor point for calculating training stress score. I came upon this based on my experience as a cyclist and training as an exercise physiologist. We were doing studies with trained cyclists and trying to answer the core question of what makes someone good. Historically VO2 max was the measure of an athlete but in the 1970s it was realized that muscular metabolic fitness was a more important determinant of endurance performance than VO2 max. VO2 max sets the upper limit for aerobic ATP production, but that’s only a few minutes at a time. Most endurance events are at some fraction of that maximal uptake which is dependent on our muscular metabolic fitness. The history is from when Tom Walters was at UT and a cyclist in the lab; we got fourteen cyclists all with the same VO2 max and different lactate thresholds. The performance test was “go as long as you can at 88% of your max.” The time to fatigue was a six-fold range. One guy made 15 minutes, I made 75 minutes. I was in Trexlertown in Fall of 2000 using a beta PowerTap, and heard a guy talking about power, John Verheul, telling someone that he wanted to be on the forefront of converting heartrate training zones into power-based training zones. I was driving home thinking, “You know, there is a power vacuum here. New tools are available and there is little information how to use them. Readily available public knowledge? There was little. And I said, “Why not me?” and decided to develop physiological power training levels. Then I went back to my physiological training and constructed the training levels around the 40km TT. The irony is that scientific literature, twenty years later, is trying to compare FTP against other things. Of course FTP existed before I ever named it. We all know what that limit is, it’s like pornography, you know it when you see it. I can’t define FTP but I know it when I feel it.

Seth Davidson: Recent researchers claim that FTP isn’t deep enough, for example it fails to account for wind drag. What do you think of having a more detailed profile than FTP for training with power?

Andy Coggan: Power is power, who cares about aero drag? It doesn’t matter, the day to day variability is a few percent. All training levels are arbitrary, do you need it determined to the nth degree when the athlete’s ability to execute and benefit from such a fine-grained determination is nonexistent? Related to that, training with power is different from training by power. Training by power isn’t appropriate. Power output is not constant riding or racing and if you’re fixated on trying to overly constrain your power output it’s less and less like racing. So I use training “with” power, not training “by” power. Many mistakenly believe that lab testing is the gold standard and field data is a poor man’s substitute. I believe the opposite. The best predictor of performance is performance itself.

Seth Davidson: Has training with power changed bike racing?

Andy Coggan: Aside from potentially making more people fast and therefore making it even more competitive, you do see people who complain about power meters and race radios because they take away the panache, I don’t know if that’s true or not and it’s subjective anyway. It would have the potential on a long climb, and you get attacked and you believe you’re better and you think their output is not sustainable, you might have the confidence to let them go and hope they blow up. At the end of the day I’m the competitive rider, and if people have algorithms to estimate how many matches you have remaining, in real time, I wonder if there’s any actionable intelligence in that? You still have to get up to the break. If you’re like me with a monstrous ego there’s nothing the power meter could say that would shake my confidence so I might as well have the data. If you can’t sprint it makes life simple. Who cares what the power meter says? There’s the break, you’re either going to reel it in or quit. I’m not going to quit just because the power meter says I suck.

Seth Davidson: How much does it cost to train with power, realistically, for a sport rider who takes fitness and competition seriously?

Andy Coggan: I don’t really know. It’s got to be $500? People will buy a left-leg only PM because it’s inexpensive and you get your left leg power x2 under the assumption that you’re symmetrical. However, asymmetry in human movement is the norm. A lot of knowledge and tools have been proposed so how do you get on top of it to use your own data to your best advantage? Some people are good at self-education, some aren’t. The  convenience of having everything all in one place was the motivation for our book [Training with a Power Meter]. Coaches are helpful but there is plenty of free reading material all over the web. I went my own way. How much you get out is how much you put in. You shouldn’t be intimidated by it. The first thing after getting a power meter is not to change anything, ride for two weeks or a month to get a variety of your normal riding in and then start looking at the data and see if you can learn anything about yourself that is useful. If you want to speed up the process you can buy a book or hire a coach. But a coach can look at objective data in a data file but can’t know what the athlete was feeling. So there definitely is value in self-analysis as opposed to outsourcing it entirely.

Seth Davidson: People used to joke that wattage didn’t mean anything for bike racing. If it did, all we’d have to do was pin up our numbers at the start and collect the prize money. Is that the essence of racing now? What do you think about that?

Andy Coggan: There is the white hot crucible of competition. If you can improve performance by one percent it increases an athlete’s odds of making the podium at the Olympics by a factor of five. It illustrates how tight things are competitively. Let’s say I knew everyone’s power output and aero drag, and other factors, I could probably predict their TT within a few percent. But that few percent would totally jumble the finishing order. If you beat someone by 15 seconds in a TT you might beat them later, but 30 seconds? Someone’s going to need to get a divorce or quit their job. But in a mass start event power output won’t tell you who’s going to finish where. They don’t do stage races in distance running, the longest race is only about two hours. Why? It comes down to drafting. Because you can draft on a bike you can’t tell who’s the best in just a few hours because the next day the results could be different. So you need longer and longer races, day after day, and after 28 days the stronger emerges.

Seth Davidson: What is the interplay between your research and training with power?

Andy Coggan: None whatsoever. My research is NIH-funded, unrelated to sports. My research has been aging-related.

Seth Davidson: What is training with power going to look like in ten years?

Andy Coggan: There was a power vacuum that I attempted to fill. Hunter Allen has been a proseletizer about power meter training. A lot of my ideas have been used by others but not supplanted. They may be in the future, there are cycles in scientific research as well, 20-30 years go by and people revisit the issues because technology advances. We don’t respect our elders and the younger generation comes along to prove us wrong and that may happen. Just for fun: “The way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas,” per Linus Pauling, the only guy to win two Nobel prizes. You never run out of ideas.

Seth Davidson: Do you think that the more we rely on data to define our activities, the less enjoyable they become to participate in or to spectate?

Andy Coggan: It comes back to your personality. If my wife’s Garmin watch battery runs down in the middle of a run we joke that, “If you didn’t record it, it didn’t happen.” I still record every workout but don’t analyze it. I haven’t gotten to the point where I don’t measure, but do I get pleasure out of logging it? In ten years a lot of this, it may be that our solutions have no practical merit, but the act of thinking about it is pleasurable. The tools I’ve proposed are too complicated for the average person, so if the goal were to have the biggest impact on the greatest number of people, as opposed to selling niche software to geeks that like to crunch numbers and write their own software.

Seth Davidson: You said in a podcast that in retrospect you wish that training with power had been more of a “black box.” What did you mean?

Andy Coggan: You think about having larger databases and treating the individual less as an individual which is not ideal. In medicine we rely on multi-center trials that your doctor is hopefully up to speed with but nonetheless treats you as an individual for dosing, etc. It hard to automate and explain the process of that ideal. Reaching the most people and having good, not necessarily the best results, simplifying it, your name/age/weight/goals, absorbing data and spitting out the next workout never tells you how you got there, requires no knowledge or input on your part. That’s an extreme description but power training needs to be simplified, i.e. take away choices from the users that they don’t even know are being made.

Seth Davidson: Jeff Fields was at the Olympic Training Center one year and Eddie B. was discussing data from the ergometer and how they used it to select athletes. Jeff raised his hand and said, “Yeah, but your ergometer can’t measure desire.” What do you think about that quote?

Andy Coggan: He’s right. If you can’t predict the outcome of a race based on the power people can generate, then you can’t predict it on physiological markers that indicate that power. Having a sufficiently high VO2 max is a necessary but not sufficient condition for elite athletic performance. Sounds so wise but even that is double speak. How high is sufficiently high? What is elite? There are many people walking around who if you measured their physiological capabilities are potential pros and champions but only a limited number become professional or champions. Some could be desire, error in measurement, circumstance. You can’t rely on physiological data anymore anyway for athletic selection. Nor can you rely on power data.

Seth Davidson: Thanks very much for speaking with me.

Andy Coggan: You’re welcome.


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Once a bike racer … Part 1

February 11, 2021 § 11 Comments

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.


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Internet cycling coach fires client: “He just sucked.”

December 20, 2013 § 27 Comments

In what is believed to be the first ever instance of an Internet cycling coach terminating a client who was paid up on his fees, Samuel Slopworthy ended his longstanding online coaching relationship with cyclist Waylon Tuppersmith today. According to Slopworthy, “Waylon just wasn’t any good. Mathematically, his chances of improving were, like, zero. That’s ‘zero’ with an infinity of zeroes after the decimal point.”

Tuppersmith, who had trained with Slopworthy since 2010, was flabbergasted by the termination notice. “I’m still trying to process it,” he admitted. “Sam and I go way back. I’d used CTS and Negacoach and a bunch of other online coaches, but none of them worked. With Sam I really felt like I was making progress. Aside from his monthly fee of $950, the SRM and WKO subscription, he wasn’t always upselling me gear and training camps and such. I’m really blown away.”

Slopworthy saw it differently. “We started off like every other client-coach. I told him that with some hard work and by following the training plan I’d cadged off Joe Friel, he’d soon be crushing the Saturday ride, he’d up his FTP 30-40%, you know, the usual empty promises you make to get people to cough up their credit card number and expiration date. But it just never happened. He was as slow after three years as the day he signed up. In good conscience, I just couldn’t keep bullshitting him.”

Wayne Atlas, an industry analyst whose expertise is online coaching, noted that this was truly unique. “The whole concept of online coaching is simple. Once you get ’em on the hook, you keep ’em on the hook. No one in his right mind fires a client whose credit card can still be charged at the end of the month. It’s cray-cray.” Asked if he thought this might be a new trend, Atlas shrugged. “Hard to say.”

Tuppersmith was desolate. “Sam had me doing intervals and big ring work  on Tuesdays and Thursdays, tempo climbs on Wednesdays, a fast group ride on Saturday, and Zone 2 distance on Sundays, Mondays and Fridays super easy or completely off — I’d do that for two weeks, follow it with an easy week, and then repeat. I really could tell I was getting faster. Some days I was hanging onto the group ride all the way to the point where it started going fast.” When asked where the ride started getting fast, however, Tuppersmith admitted that it was “after about five minutes.”

Slopworthy disagreed with his client’s optimistic analysis. “Some people are hopeless as athletes. I didn’t used to believe that, but I do now. No matter what we tried, he sucked, and we tried everything. I’d throw a bunch of stuff I read off Andy Coggan’s web site at him … zilch. We tried 20-minute threshold efforts … nothing. Sprint workouts, zip. He was kind of impressive, you know, the way he absolutely never improved in anything no matter what.”

Slopworthy, who has been coaching online clients since 2005, explained his training to become an online cycling coach. “I’d recently been let go at Mickey D’s, and I found out that you could read some books and then start taking clients. I like to think I’m one of the better online coaches out there.”

When asked if he cycled competitively, Slopworthy laughed. “Me? You kidding? I don’t even own a bike. I’m a coach.”

Tuppersmith, a database programmer who lives in Cincinnati, felt that Slopworthy’s credentials were impeccable. “He really had all the answers. When he put me on that gluten-free diet and got me on a yoga program, I knew he was the real deal. Gym workouts, strengthening my core, compression boots, altitude tent, legal supplements … This has really thrown me for a loop.”

Slopworthy saw it differently. “No matter what we tried, he sucked. The subscription level he had entitled him to ten emails and one live phone call per month. The emails I could kind of bullshit my way around, you know, ‘Good job, but work harder on the climbs,’ that kind of shit. It was the live calls that were killing me. He’d call up and like, what could I say? He flat fucking sucked. It was affecting my marriage. I’d lie awake the night before our scheduled call, trying to figure out how to tell him that he was making progress when all the parameters conclusively showed that he wasn’t. It was awful.”

However, Tuppersmith remains optimistic. “I really learned a lot from Sam. If I can find another online coach to run my credit card, I’m pretty sure I can upgrade to Cat 4 next year. It’s doable.”

Humans have evolved, or something

July 21, 2012 § 8 Comments

This dude I’m not friends with on FB posted the results of the USCF national individual time trial championships from 1982. I was eighteen, had not yet started college, and had not yet bought my first road bike.

Scanning down the list was awesome. Names from the present were right up near the top–Thurlow Rogers, Steve Hegg–and other, less famous names of people I  knew well and/or raced against stared were there as well. Texans Stan Blanton, Terry Wittenberg, and Lone Star transplants Bob Lowe and Andy Coggan were all on the list. Each one of those guys was tough, and fast, and tough. Did I mention they were all really fucking tough?

It didn’t take long for my eye to wander over to the winning time, 55:10.52. In 2012 the USA Cycling national ITT winning ride was by Dave Zabriskie, 40:41.44 over a shorter 35k distance in a race that was contested by US professionals racing for UCI trade teams. Those 1982 guys included the top US amateurs, but no UCI professionals.

In thirty years the races couldn’t have become more different. That event in 1982 looked nothing like the one in 2012 in virtually any respect.

Compare that to the 10k distance in track. In 1982 Alberto Salazar held the American record in the 10k at 27:42. Today, the American record is held by Galen Rupp, at 26:48, a thirty-year improvement of less than four percent. Those apples can easily be compared to the apples of 1982.

My first contre-le-montre

In 1984 I did the Texas state ITT west of Houston, and turned a 1:04. I flew out into the tailwind, blew up after the first ten miles, then slogged back into the headwind, a textbook case of how not to ride a time trial. Even so, there were plenty of people who went a lot slower than that. I still remember the guys who could break an hour were demi-gods. A time trial bike meant one without water bottles in the cages, or 32 spokes instead of 36.

In 2005 I did another 40k ITT, this one also outside Houston, in Katy. I still had the same bike configuration from 1985, but everyone else rode full TT everything. I turned a 1:05 or maybe it was a 1:04. Compared to the people I was racing against this was so slow as to merit incredulity. It didn’t make any difference that in twenty years I’d not lost much, perhaps because there hadn’t been a lot to begin with.

I’m afraid it’s mostly about the bike

A winning state TT time over 40k these days can be expected to break 56 minutes. Although drugs unquestionably play a role, what remains to explain the newfound speed is aero technology. The cumulative effects of disc wheels, slippery clothing, helmets, shoe covers, tire technology, aerodynamic frames, and radically improved body position mean that people go faster today because they have, quite literally, purchased the speed to do so.

Of course the people who win still have to suffer like dogs.

Looking at those results from 1982 made me think that there is something more impressive about a 40k ITT with minimally aerodynamic equipment than going ten minutes faster with all the trick stuff. Andy Paulin smashing into the wind, all six feet five inches of him, without a helmet or disc to help with the effort…something about that makes you admire the man and covet his ability rather than making you want to purchase his rig and his wheelset.

Which, frankly, is how it ought to be.

Waffling reader can’t make up mind about power meter

September 6, 2011 § 4 Comments

Dear Wankmeister:

I’ve been cycling for three years now. I started with a hand-me-down Nishiki that my brother used in college, and have gradually worked my way up to a new Specialized Venge with Zipp 800’s and Shimano Di2. I started doing the Donut Ride about a year ago and although the first part is tough but doable, I have a lot of trouble when we hit the bottom of the Switchbacks. I’ve also done some USCF road races and tend to come unhitched when the road tilts up. After reading Coggan’s “Training and Racing with a Power Meter,” I’ve almost made the decision to up my game and get one, but it’s a tough sell on the home front as my wife doesn’t really “get” why I need a power meter after buying such an expensive bike. I’ve tried to explain power to weight ratios to her and stuff like that, but her eyes just glaze over, she starts talking about the kids’ orthodontics, and then I don’t get any sex for a couple of weeks. Any suggestions on how I can make my case? I’m primed for some serious training this winter and an upgrade to the 4’s in 2012.

Tired of Talking to the Hand,
Billy Budd

Dear Billy:

Pardon me while I puke. There, I’m almost better. Dude, you haven’t “gradually worked up” if you’ve gone from a Nishiki to a Venge in three years. That’s like getting triple D breast implants before you’ve even reached puberty. Back in the day you had to ride a shit bike for three years just so you could upgrade to 32-spoke GP4’s, you spoiled little showoff snotnosed sonofabitch. Your letter indicates that on the Donut, prior to hitting the Switchbacks you’re already in trouble, which should be a Wanker Alert of the first order: the Donut Ride should be a fucking cakewalk until you hit the climb. If you’re so much as cracking a sweat before then, your problems have nothing to do with a power meter, and everything to do with power, of which you apparently don’t have much. Getting a power meter to increase your power is like getting a longer tape measure to increase your height. And by the way, your wife’s not the only one who doesn’t “get” it; I don’t, either. You’re getting shelled at the bottom of the climb on $10,000 worth of bike? You need to study Newton’s First Law of Cyclodynamics, which is that idiots can never be created or destroyed, they can only change bikes. And if you feel stupid flailing off the back on the equivalent of a Ferrari, think how stupid you’re gonna feel when you introduce your friends to your kids and their teeth are growing down into their chins. IT’S A FUCKING HOBBY, MORON, NO MATTER HOW MANY PARTS AND KITS YOU OWN THAT LOOK JUST LIKE FABIAN’S! Plus, the fact that you can even think about sex is proof that you’re not logging the miles, and are logging something else instead.

The Wankmeister

Dear Wankmeister:

I’ve done some reading on tubulars v. clinchers. Which do you recommend?

Glued to My Inbox,
Sammy Snuffles

Dear Sammy:

A long time ago, when hard men with names ending in a string of unpronounceable consonants plied the cobbles between Compiègne and Roubaix, there were good reasons to use a tire that leaves you covered up to your eyelids in glue, that falls off the rim when it’s too hot resulting in catastrophic accidents, that can only be repaired by a master seamstress, that requires you to carry an entire other 2-lb. tire for flats on the road, and that costs ten times more than a replacement clincher inner tube. That time was long before you were born, during a Golden Age of Cycling when it was honorable to be stupid. Now, the only reason to use a tubular is if you’ve purchased every possible component and whacky invention to increase your speed (think elliptical chain rings, Power Cranks, etc.), yet you still suck. They won’t make you any faster, but you’ll take out the field when you rip through the state championship crit on the last lap and roll a tire.

The Wankmeister

The early years: the secret training life of Andy Coggan, Ph.D.

January 20, 2011 § 3 Comments

This all happened, if it happened at all,  more than twenty-five years ago. My memory is not terribly reliable over that stretch of time, and my imagination sometimes has a way of making stories differ from the way that other people remember them. Still, I’d vouch for everything that follows except for the parts that are wrong. Hopefully someone in the great wide blogosphere will identify the errata and let me know. Not that I’d change anything, because it’s such a good story.

When I was racing bikes as a student at the University of Texas in the mid-1980’s, I went to a “Health Fair” being held at the UGL. There were various stops and you’d go around from station to station, testing various aspects of your health and fitness. The final station was an ergometer with a VO2 facemask. I think it was a Tunturi, with green lettering on the side and a giant flywheel in the front.

The guy standing at the ergometer was a fit-looking student with a clipboard. I think he had dark brown hair, medium build, and cyclist legs. He took down my name and phone number, I signed the waiver and did the test to failure. I weighed about 145 pounds and was 6’1″. He told me my VO2 max and sent me on my way. At the time I didn’t even know what a VO2 max was.

The next day I got a call. “Hi. I’m the guy who did the VO2 max test yesterday. Your results weren’t bad. Are you a cyclist?”

“Yes,” I said. “Why?”

“I’m a grad student doing research on human physiology and wondered if you’d be interested in doing some testing at the lab.”

I laughed, and politely declined. This was the mysterious Andy Coggins, the cyclist from the Midwest who had come to Texas to experiment on cyclists in his mad cycling lab. The tales had already grown into awful legends about how Coggins would approach cyclists, get them to agree to testing, and then put them through the most horrific workouts imaginable, followed by the occasional muscle biopsy to determine lactate levels. We heard that he was testing some carbohydrate replacement drink or other and that the tests measured the efficacy of the various products.

One of our buddies, Bob Lowe, was a test subject and never failed to regale us with stories of twice weekly two-hour  ride-to-failure sessions that were more painful and draining and crushing than any ride, ever. I knew enough to steer clear of the mad scientist’s laboratory, even though one of my buddies from the Midwest, Jeff Fields, had this to say about Coggins: “He knows how to race a bike.”

For someone who was so focused on cycling performance, we wondered why Andy never showed up on the group rides, and laughed at his conspicuous absence from the races. “Typical professor,” we said. “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.”

Occasionally we would see him out on Loop 360. Rumor had it that he did a single 60-mile workout a couple of times a week, and that was pretty much it. To say he was on the periphery of our consciousness is to overstate it. We only noticed that the more workouts Bob did with the mysterious scientist, the worse he raced.

In those days the biggest race of the year was the state road race. It was a 110-mile June event usually held outside of San Antonio in the blistering heat. The contenders for the crown were a small cadre whom everyone knew: Mike Murray, Jerry Markee, Stan Blanton, Dean Buzbee, John Morstead, Mike Adams, Mark Switzer, Jeff Fields…these were the heads of state. I may have the year wrong, but I’m pretty sure that it was in 1985 that Coggins showed up to race. I was living in Colorado at the time, and got the race report second hand, the day after the race.

He was unknown as a racer, and only vaguely known at all–he was certainly no one that any of the big guns took any notice of whatsoever. Their familiarity with his racing ability never got much more intimate, however, because Coggins parted company with the field halfway through the race and no one ever saw him again. He motored to victory in the longest solo breakaway in the history of the race. He chewed up the field and spit it back out on the hot Texas tarmac, and to rub salt into the gaping wound, that was his first and last race in Texas that I ever heard of. Rumor had it that the only reason he even showed up was to test some theory about training that he’d concocted in the lab.

Two decades later I came across the name of Andrew Coggan, Ph.D., and made the connection–I’d had his name wrong all those years. Was that tour de force at the Texas state championships an early test of his theories about power and training that led to his development of Training Peaks? Or did he just want to kick everyone in the teeth before moving on to greener pastures?

Will we ever know?


Andy posted the following on the Google Wattage Forum, clarifying the finer points of the race itself:

“Thank you for that little trip down memory lane!

“I did not actually solo to victory, though – rather, I had to outsprint Stan Blanton after we first got away from Bob Lowe and two others with one lap to go, then dropped Scott Dickson at the start of the final, gradual climb to the finish line.

“My training prior to that race consisted mostly of a few months of commuting either to or from campus via Loop 360, which took ~1 h. On Sundays, I would do the Bee Caves/Mansfied Dam/Bull Creek/Loop 360 route, which took ~2 h. The only structure or intensity was imposed by my “must-catch-and-drop-any-cyclist-I-see” rule…I can still recall some really painful chases, when I’d see somebody up ahead of me in the afternoon heat, groan to myself, then suck it up and get on with the required task.

“A week after the road race, I did the state TT, but those were the only two races I did while I lived in Austin.

“Anyway, thanks again for the Andy Warhol moment…if you or anybody else have pictures from those events, I’d love to see them.”

Andy Coggan

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