I wrote this piece in Spring 2005 and as I continue on the Tour de Basement in preparation for yet another summer assault on the Alps it is fun to revisit it. There is a difference between training and working-out and my results in 2005, when I rode 11 Swiss/Italian Alpine pass roads in 6 days, convinced me that I just had to keep on doing this.
"Go, Go, Go!," my friend Ralph the Badger was shouting in the distance, along with my coach. My dim brain could barely comprehend what was happening as the words filtered in. I was totally focused on grinding out yet another turn of the pedals as my familiar bicycle turned into a torture instrument, forcing me to ride up what felt like at 25 per cent incline. Worst of all, I was breathing as hard as I could but getting almost no air into my lungs because an ogre was stamping on my chest and suffocating me. In fact, I was taking a test indoors to determine my VO2 max and my lactate threshold. Not only had I willing agreed to do this, but I was even paying for it.
I would consider myself an average recreational rider. Just out of high school in 1974, I made my first serious bike tour, riding from London to Munich with my best friend and discovering I loved cycling. Of course, back then I was strong and slim, albeit less charming and sophisticated than now, but as the years went by I never forgot that great ride. In 1998 I moved to Germany for a four year assignment and discovered cycling Euro-style, with trips to Mallorca, Belgium, Sicily, Holland, Switzerland, the entire Camino de Santiago and all over Germany. But when I rode with my friends I found that I often could not keep up well on hills and was determined to improve this.
Fast-forward to Washington, DC. After moving to the city in 2002 and joining a bicycle touring club, I found that I was able to do more riding than ever before. I also was climbing more hills than ever before as we often rode in the shadow of the Blue Ridge. In a moment of insanity I signed up for the cheerfully-named Mountains of Misery Tour and discovered that I was still not very good at hills. But a year later, and 15 pounds lighter, it was a lot easier when I did my second MoM. And thus a plan was hatched.
In 2000 I rode several passes in the Swiss Alps and I was so taken with the beauty of the region that I vowed to return. But I also vowed that I would not wheeze and gasp my way over the passes as I had done then. It was always my experience that the best tours I did were the ones where I felt most at one with the bicycle, when my conditioning let me enjoy the scenery without being distracted by the hardships of pedalling.
At the end of October 2004 I decided to Get Really Serious and take advantage of the coaching services that have sprung up all over the United States. I bought a good heart rate monitor, an expensive home trainer, and even a great big fan to keep me cool. I got all kinds of bicycle race DVDs to watch but to set the whole thing in motion I clearly needed Professional Help. This would not be a surprise to those who have known me any length of time, but what I was looking at would mean a much greater commitment to my hobby. But as someone with a desk job I looked at this as an investment in my future health as well. The most obvious benefit would come in August 2005 when my goal is to do a week’s tour in the Swiss Alps, covering 12 passes, including the fearsome Stelvio with its 46 hairpin, turns in seven days.
To prepare myself, I stocked up on books written by training luminaries such as Joe Friel and Chris Carmichael, and searched the Internet for any useful information about training I could find. I now have several binders full of Useful Suggestions, but you don’t get fit by reading. So I then found a coach near me who offered training programs and the opportunity to take tests at a facility a short drive away. My friend Ralph wanted to do the test as well, although he was not planning on signing up for coaching.
I was chosen to be the lucky first contestant. My bicycle was set up on a home trainer. A heart rate monitor (HRM) transmitter was strapped on to my chest and then a neoprene mask with tubes sticking out of was fitted to my face, below my eyes. There was a computer wired up that the coach was operating. The idea was that I would keep pedalling at a comfortable and regular cadence as resistance on the trainer unit was increased each minute. The set-up was able to determine how much oxygen I was consuming and how fast I was exhaling CO2. This is used to calculate what is essentially lung capacity (maximal aerobic capacity, technically), something that is more representative of good genes than of fitness. For example, two of the Tour de France’s great riders–Lance Armstrong and Miguel Indurain–could boast VO2 max levels (expressed in milliliters of oxygen per kilogram per minute) of 88 and 80 respectively, compared to the average person’s level of 50.
Of more importance is establishing baseline level for "Lactate Threshold" (LT). Without being too scientific about it, this is the maximum effort you can sustain for extended periods without, well, blowing up. If insufficient oxygen to going to your muscles using the aerobic metabolism, your body must rely on the anaerobic metabolism. What you get is a build-up of lactic acid, which causes your muscles to hurt a whole lot and you eventually have to slow down or stop. The purpose of the test is to determine at what heart rate LT is reached and then you can use that figure to develop a training plan. While VO2 max can’t be changed a great deal, the LT can be raised through training to represent a higher percentage of VO2 max.
So my curiosity thus led me to be strapped onto my bicycle so I could pretend to be an elite athlete. There was a long warm-up first; then the first few minutes of the test went swimmingly as I kept a steady pace and thought positive thoughts. At the 5 minute mark I was finding it a little more difficult; at 10 minutes it was getting noticeably harder. At 14 minutes, bad things were beginning to happen as I was starting to feel the mask constrict me as I tried to breathe heavily to match my exertion. The last two minutes, which took me to 17:08, were horrible as I was gasping, trying to breathe and my legs felt like concrete blocks. Who is doing all that groaning? Wait–it’s me! Get me off of here–I only cycle for fun! My head was throbbing and I felt as if I would do anything to get off the stupid bike and end the idiotic test. But I survived.
Mind you, Ralph had to take the mask off because I did not have the strength or coordination to do it myself. I was too busy gasping. And he took great pleasure in telling me how awful I looked. It needed a good ten minutes of gentle spinning for me to feel sort of normal again. And when the computer printout was completed, I learned that my VO2 max was 58.4 (hmm, no Indurain there) and my LT was reached at a heart rate of 155 bpm. According to the printout, the latter was 76% of my VO2 max. This meant I was a good candidate for improvement through training as you can be trained up to 90% of VO2 max. Most importantly, I now had a baseline to determine the correct intensity of my workouts. No two individuals are alike in heart rate or LT or recovery time, so these tests are only useful for measuring your progress.
In the four months since then, I have religiously followed my workout program. The first part, at what seems like bizarrely slow speeds, has been primarily to improve my endurance. After this initial stage, I will move into the realm of training closer to the LT. My coach has encouraged me to develop training goals for the year and has suggested doing some racing to improve my cycling skills and focus my training. And of course, proper nutrition is a major element of getting in condition, but that’s another story.
Most cyclists don’t race, but training is valuable for anyone going on a bike tour. There is often the added weight of panniers to consider and if there are no hills, there are always headwinds. After a great day of riding and a well-deserved dinner, getting up the next morning and heading off to new adventures should be something to look forward to rather than being endless torture.
On the subject of torture, Ralph had his chance to be tested too and I did not neglect taking the opportunity to point out when I removed the mask from his face how pale he looked, and how pink his eyes had become.