Once a bike racer … Part 1
February 11, 2021 § 11 Comments
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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October 10, 2019 § 3 Comments
When I post an upcoming ride, someone invariably posts the following:
- How much elevation?
- How far?
I usually try to be honest:
- You’ll be tired at the end.
- It won’t be flat.
- Bring your passport.
What is it with people who want to know everything before they start? Look, it’s going to be hard. It’s going to be long. There will be climbing. Will you get dropped? Hell, yes. Will you be miserable? Hell, yes. Will you rue the day you were born? Hell, yes.
But that’s not all. You’ll get stronger, we’ll almost certainly wait for you, you’ll feel like you accomplished something, and most importantly, you’ll be home before noon.
Back in the day you never asked that kind of stuff. First, no one even had an odometer, much less a way to measure elevation. Rides were either hilly or flat. Long (100), medium (70), or short (30). Fast or slow. And crucially, the ride was typically decided at the start.
We didn’t have the ‘Bag, the ‘Gram, or the Stravver, and it was too complicated to pick up the phone and call a dozen people, so we had predetermined start times on days of the week, and as we rolled out of town we chose the day’s route.
I say “we” but it was never “we.” The chooser was Fields, and he rarely told you where you were going. He made turns and you deduced from the turns where the route most likely was. Guadalupe towards the river? Probably San Marcos. MLK eastbound? Manor and parts northeast, or maybe Webberville and parts east. Bee Cave/Loop 360? Volente or Marble Falls. One thing’s for sure. You never, ever asked, “Where are we going today?”
Because it was a sign of weakness. WTF did you care where we were going if you had good legs? Because you had to be home at a certain time? Then you didn’t belong on the ride anyway. Because you had some specific plan you were following? Then you didn’t belong on the ride anyway. Because you were scared? Oh, okay. That will be used against you later.
In short, if you were talking you were losing. Every word was parsed and fed into the calculus of “Who’s going well and who’s going to get dropped and who’s going to tear my legs off?” Riding was mental as much as physical; there were no ersatz measuring sticks like TSS or FTP or IDGAF. The ride was the yardstick, and where you came unstitched was how well you did, and the focal point for all the harassing you had to put up with the rest of the week, and the nucleus around which you could build out your pathetic excuses.
Scott Dickson was a master mathematician of this sort of ride calculus and would vary the ride en route depending on how bad or good you felt. If you felt good he’d make it longer and harder, whereas if you felt bad he’d make it longer and harder. “Let’s turn here and add a couple of miles,” meant “Let’s turn here and add twenty miles where there is no place to get water because your bottle is empty and it’s 100 degrees.”
Nowadays people just quiver behind their keyboards, and it doesn’t help them ride better. It deters them from riding, or sends them scurrying to some pre-fab ride where there is no surprise of any kind. You’re doing the “team ride” and like every team ride you will never get any better, never go any faster, never do anything this week that you didn’t do the one before. But the payoff is that there are no surprises.
Kind of sad because life is one big surprise, by which I mean obstacle.
From the moment you awake to the moment you die, you are faced with obstacles to surmount, find a way around, have someone help you climb over, or push out of the way. And you don’t get better at navigating obstacles by following the crowd, although there’s apparently security in knowing that when you dash madly over the cliff at least you’ll have lots of company.
Life, as with cycling, is filled with people who think that the easy way is the easy way, never grasping that it’s the hardest way of all.
February 11, 2018 § 5 Comments
It’s funny how you can remember certain things very clearly. I don’t know how many times I have gone fast around a corner in my life, but I bet it’s a bunch. Of all the times, though, there is one turn I remember more than any other.
It was around Christmastime in 1989. I was living in Bad Godesberg with my wife and daughter, at the Studentenwohnheim Rheinallee. Most days before school I would hop on my blue Eddy Merckx, drop down to the river and go up the bike path a couple of miles to the bridge at Hochkreuz. From there I’d cross over and ride in the hills along the river for an hour or two, then cross back over and come home.
In winter it was always good riding. Wet, cold, and lots of cobbled, stony roads that zigged up, zagged down, and never had any traffic. One of the places I always ended up was on a dead end called Adriansberg, in Königswinter. It was a brute climb and ended in gravel for the last couple of hundred yards. From there I’d drop back over to Dollendorfer Street and bomb full bore back into Königswinter.
There was one huge hook turn, a right-hander, and this was decades before Strava so I never knew how fast it was, but it was fast, screamingly fast, all-in fast, so fast that you made yourself small, leaned, leaned, leaned, leaned, and then popped back up like a cork, zooming on back to the Rhine and safety and home. I did that descent so many times that I kind of forgot how fast it was. Of course I’d see it, set up for it, lean into it, and get a little thrill, but then continue on with my ride … special but not that special.
Anyway, this particular December my good friend Jeff Fields had come to visit, and he’d brought his bike. Do you know what kind of friend brings his bike to ride with you in winter in Germany? A good friend, that’s what kind. Jeff was also a real, real good bike handler. I had never seen him fall, or even come close to falling. He had nerves of steel.
Jeff had raced in Belgium and knew what he was in for, so we suited up and rolled out in that light freezing drizzle. “Any fool can ride home in a cold rain,” Jeff always liked to say, “but it takes a hard bastard to start out in it.”
We crossed the river and began doing the climbs in the Siebengebirge, the beautiful expanse of hills on the far side of the Rhine. When we got to Adriansberg, we were pretty done, but we raced up it anyway. As we headed home, gathering speed down Dollendorfer Street, I rolled in front of Jeff. “I know the route,” I said. He nodded.
In a flash the turn was there, and we were absolutely flying. I’d done it a hundred times before, in harder rain and worse weather than this. Unusually, there was traffic in the other direction, so it crossed my mind, fleetingly, that this would be a bad day to lay it down and slide into the oncoming travel lane.
The turn reared up in front of me but I wasn’t scared. My tires were glued on well, they had plenty of tread, I was running them slightly underinflated to make them stickier, and when the g’s began to pull I leaned against their tug, the bike pushing farther and farther and farther, the road getting closer and closer and closer, until it popped back up, just like it always did, squirting me out of the apex like the world’s most well-lubed watermelon seed.
A minute later Jeff caught up to me. He grabbed my jersey. “Hey,” he said.
I looked and he was absolutely white, a hue I’d never seen on his face before. “Yeah?”
“That turn,” he said. “I thought you were going down. No way you were going to hold that.”
“Oh, that? I do it all the time.”
He shook his head and let go. “Never seen anything like that in my life.”
A lot of things went through my head just then, not least of which being that Jeff had trained and raced with some of the world’s best. Suddenly I started shaking from fear, but it was too late, I’d already won.
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September 7, 2017 § 16 Comments
I had lunch with a guy today. He’s sixty-two years old and looks like most 62-year-old dudes. Not in the best of shape, maybe drinks a bit more than he should, doing okay but definitely on the down side of the power curve.
He was talking about young people, a favorite topic of old people. Young people, however, don’t ever talk about old people. In fact, they hardly are even aware we exist. “Yeah,” he said, “I tell my kids that if they can just show up on time and look presentable, they’ve already won more than half the battle. Don’t matter what the battle even is.”
It made me think about my bike rides, which always start on time. I’m fond of telling people the start time and then adding “pointy-sharp.” With few exceptions, when it’s time to ride, I ride. If you get left behind because you had a flat or an extra cup of coffee or got up late or changed arm warmers at the last minute, well, hopefully you know the route and are familiar with something called “chase.”
In cycling, it’s funny how people who show up on time with their equipment and clothes in superb order often correlate with people who ride well. Lots of examples come to mind. Daniel Holloway, for instance. He’s always early, his kit is always spiffy, and his bike is always immaculate. Or Evens Stievenart, the lokalmotor who just set the world-fucking-record for 24-hour racing … he’s another person who’s punctual, and whose equipment always looks like it just got cleaned. I suspect this is because his equipment just got cleaned.
There are exceptions, of course. I have one friend who is lethally good but who is the enemy of the punctual and whose gear isn’t always in the finest working order. But even he, when it’s race day, gets there on time and makes sure his stuff is race ready. And in his day job he’s invariably on time for meetings and looks like the professional he is.
At the extreme end of the spectrum there are people like Iron Mike and Smasher and Stern-O, for whom timeliness and especially cleanliness are religions. Hair and Charon are two other riders who always look GQ and who ride even better.
Of course showing up on time and having clean equipment doesn’t magically equate to great riding skills. But on the other hand, it’s hard to have great riding skills and also be careless about time and the condition of your junk. Possible, but hard.
Being on time sounds easy, but it isn’t. All the stuff has to be in order. You have to get up early enough to eat, to covfefe, to have the right clothes on. Air in the tires. Kayle Sauce in the bottles. In short, you have to be organized, which is exactly one of the things that it takes to ride well, having the ability to do a bunch of things simultaneously in a group of people also doing a bunch of things simultaneously and not wind up on the pavement or off the back. In other words, if you can’t get your shit together enough to roll out the door on time, how well will you be able to perform in something like the individual pursuit, where meaningful differences are fractions of a second?
I’m continually amazed by people who are always late, and who regularly show up with mismatched socks, threadbare tires, uncharged batteries, helmet askew, empty bottles, and who are totally unprepared for all the totally predictable things that happen when you ride a bike. Even when they ride me off their wheel I can’t help but observe how much better they’d be if their tires actually had air in them.
Jeff Fields, the guy who invented bike racing in Texas, was a detail fiend when it came to showing up early, having his bike in perfect working order, and looking like he just stepped out of a cycling fashion catalog.
And you know what? He won a whole bunch of races.
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PS: Don’t forget the Wanky’s. As if you could.
May 18, 2016 § 11 Comments
Jeff Fields was the older brother I never had, which is weird because I actually had an older brother. The problem with my older brother was that he got the brunt of the conflict between my parents, and in a play as old as time, he passed it down to me in the form of beatings, teasing, and ritual humiliation.
Ian could be the best guy in the world, but a mentor he wasn’t, preferring most of his lessons be delivered through fisticuffs rather than patient instruction.
Jeff was the opposite. He was stern and gruff, but patient beyond belief. He knew I adored him and he’d never had a younger brother; his sister was many years his junior. Jeff didn’t talk a lot about how to train or how to race, but when he did it was always golden, and his pile of race wins spoke for his mastery of the craft.
Unfortunately, as all of my teachers in school had quickly learned, I was a miserable student. I didn’t want to learn anything, I just wanted to mash gears and ride my bike all day because it was fun. Jeff never told me I was riding stupidly, and he certainly never yelled at me or offered me advice. As a brilliant and calculating bike racer, he enjoyed watching my hopeless pursuits, pointless attacks, and devil-may-care approach. For all that, he noted everything I ever did and never seemed to forget it. Praise from him was treasure.
Yet he didn’t tolerate dangerous riding. He was the safest, steadiest, best-positioned wheel in the bunch. You could close your eyes on Jeff’s wheel, I always used to tell myself, and he didn’t have to coach you. If you wanted to be like him, you just imitated. There weren’t any secrets, except perhaps to the riders who didn’t care to watch.
Jeff put structure into my riding and confidence into my legs. He told me I was good and that I could always be better. He took me on the most challenging rides he could find, and let the distance and the pace do the rest. Countless Austin winter days days it would be overcast, cold, maybe even drizzling, and like clockwork we’d layer up, roll out, and ride.
We had one workout called The Path of Truth, where we sat behind a 50-cc motor scooter piloted by Randy Dickson out to Webberville and back. I took the wheel going out, Jeff took it going back. In all the times we did it, I never made the full 25 miles without getting shelled. Afterwards we’d shake our heads at the pain and the difficulty and the speed and the wind.
In those days of course there were no coffee shops. We simply kept pedaling as we talked in the cold and the rain, invincible.
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Here, try this water. It will make you faster.
September 12, 2012 § 14 Comments
On the bike, I’m somebody. Somebody ridiculous? Yes. Somebody clueless? Uh-huh. Somebody no one takes seriously? That, too. But at least I’m somebody.
In the gym, I’m nobody.
I’m so weak I’m not even ridiculous. Today there was a gal about 200 pounds overweight, Dog bless her, busting out of a skintight leotard that, if it hadn’t been stitched together with wire and Kevlar, would have torn asunder and killed whoever got hit by the flying fabric. Big Chick and me, we were the gym nobodies of the day, her for being so prodigiously fat and trying to work some of it off, me for being so prodigiously weak and trying to get just the slightest bit stronger.
It sucks to be a nobody.
The advice sausage magnet
The reason it sucks to be nobody isn’t the “nobody” part. It’s actually fun to just be an ordinary, anonymous wanker who everyone ignores once they see you’re straining to deadlift the 40-lb. kettlebell.
The sucky part about nobodyism is that you become the default magnet for all the advice sausages. Fortunately for the fat girl, she was there with a trainer, a very cool dude who knows his shit and from time to time offers me little tidbits I can use without being condescending or obtrusive.
“Hey, Wankster, trying keeping your back straight so that all those discs don’t pop out of your lower spine like discs coming out of a Nerf gun.” Stuff like that.
Unfortunately, last night the only person in the gym besides me was Phil the Advice Sausage. He was doing leg extensions while I fiddled with my tiny medicine ball. It’s a really small gym, so you can’t go off in a corner.
“Hey, there!” he said.
“I’m Phil. But all my friends call me Advice Sausage.”
“Hi, Phil. I’m Dave. Dave Perez.”
“Good to know you, Dave. Do you live here?”
“No, I live in San Pedro.”
“Very cool, very cool. I’m on Day Two of a 3-day detox.”
“Oh. Trying to climb onto the wagon, huh?”
“No, no. Not alcohol detox, no, you know, a natural detox. To get rid of all the toxins in my body. No solid food for three days.”
“Toxins in your body? You must be from Long Beach.”
He smiled and put on the condescending look. “Your body naturally builds up toxins from the food you eat, and so to be healthy you have to detoxify your system.”
“Oh, that. Yeah, I detox every morning. Big cup of coffee, some granola, and baby, I detox those fucking toxins to a fare-thee-well. Problem is after I detox the body, I’ve pretty much toxed up the rest of the apartment. But you know what they say. Everybody thinks his own shit smells good.”
Phil got a funny look on his face. “This is a specific program I’m on to purify the body. It’s scientifically proven. By going off solid food for three days, your body purifies and becomes healthier.”
“What about all the holes in the wall?”
“Holes in the wall?”
“Yeah, all the fucking holes you punch in the wall for being pissed off and angry at not getting to eat for three days.”
Now he was thinking it was time to switch topics. “So, what are you working on?” This was a typical advice sausage intro line, which really meant, “What is a pathetic weakling like you trying to achieve that a stud like me might help you with?”
“I’ve had a gut all year and am trying to work it off.”
“Ah, yes. I once had that problem.” Then he nonchalantly gets down on a mat and takes this little wheel thingy and starts doing roll-outs. I watch him do about a zillion of them. Then he sits up. “Don’t have that particular problem any more. Heh, heh.”
You’re so weak I can probably lie to you all day and you won’t even know it
“So, do you play a sport?” he asked.
“You really should. Sports are great for you.”
“Really? The only thing I do is bicycle, and all it seems to do is make people mentally ill or put them in the hospital.”
“Oh, you cycle? Well, that’s certainly a sport.”
“Cycling? A sport?”
“Oh, yes. It’s actually quite competitive and difficult. You’d be surprised.”
“I sure would be.”
NOTE TO READER: THIS NEXT PART REALLY HAPPENED
“I used to race bikes, actually,” said Phil. “I grew up here in Southern California and raced a lot here.”
“Really? Like, with categories and everything?”
“Oh, yeah. Absolutely.”
“What category were you?”
“I didn’t have a category. But one time I jumped in a race with a bunch of Category 1’s and beat them all.”
“You must have been fast.”
“I was pretty fast when I was young, yeah. My specialty was criterion and road racing, like they do in the Tour de France.”
“Did you also run marathons with Paul Ryan?”
“Nothing. So after beating all those Category 1 dudes in that race you jumped into, what happened? Did you turn pro?”
“Oh, no. Professional cycle racing is way beyond what you or I could ever do. I was just a local racer, one of the top guys around here, actually.”
“No shit? When was this?”
“I got started in the early 90’s. Late 90’s. 1997.”
“Gosh, that’s a long time ago. Which races did you do? You must have been fast.”
“I was best on track racing. I was a track racer. It was kind of my specialty.”
“It’s a track like a race track for cars, except no gears or brakes. My best events were the missing out and the careen.”
“The missing out is where you race in a timed thing against the clock. The careen is behind a motorcycle where you careen past the motorcycle. That’s why it’s called the careen. There’s like a hundred guys out there with you all trying to careen at the same time. You have to be really fast and not flinch.”
“Man, that’s fricking incredible. Hey, I know some dudes who used to race back then. Who did you race with?”
“Oh, I, ah, can’t really remember anyone’s names. Mike. I raced with Mike. And a guy named Fred. Mike and Fred, yeah. Mostly, though, I raced in the Midwest. I did a lot of racing in the Midwest.”
“Yeah, in the 1980’s. I started racing in the 80’s. Before your friends’ time. It was a long time ago.”
“How old are you?”
“I’m forty-eight. I’ve got some great buddies from the Midwest who were star bike racers back then. Ever hear of Jeff Fields?”
“Oh, yeah, sure, Jeff Fields. I knew him.”
“Tall, skinny guy?”
“Long blonde hair?”
“It is? I always kind of remembered him as being short with dark hair.”
“Oh yeah, he was, wasn’t he? Well, my main place of racing was Penn State and Ohio. I raced a lot there.”
“No shit? Do you know…”
But I never got to finish my sentence because he suddenly realized an important television news program he had to watch, and he dashed out.
You can’t keep a good advice sausage down
Like the Cat in the Hat, though, Phil was back in a flush, carrying a big jug of water. “How’d you like to be an experiment?” he said with a big friendly grin.
“I feel like I already am. Are you the mad scientist?”
“This is called Kangen Water. It’s super low in pH, minus 750. Green tea is minus 80. Antioxidants. You know what those are?”
“Antioxidants? Sure. A recent article in DC Science came out that said there’s no such thing.”
“That’s what traditional medicine is always saying. They have a financial interest in keeping you hooked up to the doctors and big pharma. Alternative medicine works. Trust me.”
“Have you ever had surgery?”
“Oh, sure. I had my appendix taken out.”
“Did they use traditional anesthesia or, like, acupuncture and green tea to knock you out?”
“Oh, it was traditional. But that was my appendix. I’m here to talk to you about your cycling. I can make you 20% stronger and faster just by drinking this special low pH Kangen Water.”
“Yep. It’s proven by mystic Japanese Buddhism Shinto priests. They lower the pH until the water completely detoxifies your body and infuses your cells with pure water. It’s like putting the highest grade oil in your engine. Everything just runs better.”
“I already told you, man, my detox program works like clockwork. It costs zip and the smell’s gone with a match and a candle.”
“Look. Just try this water. Drink it all day long for two days. Then get out on your bike. You’ll be the fastest guy in LA County.”
“Is this what you used when you raced bikes?”
“You bet I did.”
“And that’s what made you the fastest road track racer in Pennsylvania Ohio Midwestern Southern California?”
“Damn straight.” He had that crazy preacher look, burning with devotion to save my bank account from the devil by putting it in his safekeeping.
“Okay, man,” I said, taking the water. “I’ll try it. Now can I finish my workout?”
“Sure. But I’d like to make an appointment to show you the full program for how this stuff works and how you incorporate it with a detox. I’ve got a video program and some equipment. Only takes an hour, two hours max.” He handed me the jug with his business card. “What was your name again?”
“Dave Perez,” I said, as I gave him Dave’s phone number, email, and home address. “Feel free to drop by anytime.”
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?
UPDATED 3:29 PM
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.”