Let’s Talk Specifics (with Huw Williams)

For the casual fan, those who have a passing interest in cycling but don’t concern themselves with the finer points of the sport, it’s easy to imagine that the riders have an easy time of it during the off-season. However, with the first women’s races coming early in the year, training continues right through the colder months and now that the first races are only weeks away the riders and teams will be ramping up their efforts to ensure they’re competitive right from the start.

Here, Level 3 road and time trial coach Huw Williams explains the process by which riders can identify and develop specific skills in pre-season training.


At this time of year, with the race season approaching fast, many riders will be entering a phase of pre-competition training where the intensity ramps up in order to be better prepared for the demands of the early season races. Whilst there’s a lot of attention paid to the physical training load required during this kind of training (how long, how often and how hard), often overlooked and in some cases just plain ignored, are the tactical, technical and psychological elements that need to be developed in order to maximize performance and are as important as any other when it comes to reaching your potential. But where do start and how do you go about it?

Cycling is a highly demanding sport - and if you're not ready to meet those demands at the start of the season, you can be sure that any riders who are will take full advantage

Someone once said that cycle racing is like life without the effects of civilisation – when your rival is down you don’t help him (or her!) up, you kick him in the teeth. If you’re unable to achieve the fitness and concentration that Jessie Walker demonstrates here, you can be sure that any riders who can will take full advantage! (image: Huw Williams)

Pre-season rides with team-mates are a good place to begin identifying any areas in which you might be lacking and need to address as they will feature a microcosm of many of things you’ll encounter in road races, such as bike-handling in a group, holding a wheel, cornering in a tight bunch and so on. A good example was a recent team ride with the Epic Scott WRT, one of the UK’s leading women’s’ teams. 4 hours riding in the rolling Malvern Hills in early January quickly revealed that everyone’s state of fitness was impressively high for the off-season and training programmes were clearly on track, but just as obvious was the riders’ staleness in some key areas of group riding. This is perfectly normal for the time of year and the girls of Epic Scott WRT haven’t suddenly become bad riders overnight, its’ simply something called ‘reversibility’, the principle of conditioning that dictates that if you don’t practice something, you lose the ability to perform that something effectively. If you haven’t been racing or even riding in a bunch too often since the end of last season, some of the skills you have developed over the years and take for granted simply disappear because you haven’t been using them. Pre-season training rides like these are a great way to observe and identify such issues and get back into the habit of developing them so that when the season proper starts, you’re already up to speed.

With two coaches present for the Epic Scott WRT weekend, Nick Yarworth of British Cycling as well as myself, we were able to identify a number of areas that we could work on, thus turning a ‘ride’ into a ‘training’ ride, where some technical elements are developed as well as the, ahem, ‘important’ personal challenges and fun aspects of simply trying to beast your team mates on every climb or be the first past all the town signs. One example, and something that’s very specific to a lot of women’s races in the UK with it’s heavy emphasis on criterium racing, is changing pace and producing top-end power fast, at high cadences. This is a key skill in road racing as the ability to repeatedly respond to fast paced attacks, close gaps or hold wheels when firing out of corners throughout the duration of a race has significantly greater demands on the energy systems if you’re constantly trying to turn a big (harder) gear up to speed than spinning fast in a smaller, easier one. You see this a lot in less experienced racers (and in more experienced ones who either haven’t learned to do it in the first instance or steadfastly refuse to change their ways) who tend to over-gear, relying on brute strength to turn a hard gear, often out of the saddle, in order to produce the required power. The trouble is it can take so long to get a hard gear turning fast enough that the group or wheel you’re trying to hang with is often so far up the road you have to chase like hell to get it back. This is what you hear commentators referring to as ‘the elastic stretching.’ Do it often enough in a race and the energy demands are so high the elastic will eventually ‘snap’ and your race is over.

After observing Scott Epic WRT on their ride, one of the things we asked them to think about was not just to quickly close any gaps that naturally occur on this sort of group ride due to the varying levels of ability at things like short ’kicker’ hills and tight bends, but to close the gaps as fast as possible, without getting out of the saddle and increasing the cadence in the same or even easier gears to meet the extra power requirement. Following observation of the team ride I came home and worked out a couple of training session-plans that specifically targeted this area, finishing with a couple of trial-runs on the rollers to see if they were fit for purpose before sending them out to the girls for solo training sessions in more controllable environments on indoor trainers or familiar roads. The power and heart rate data plus the rider’s feedback that comes back from these initial sessions give us valuable ‘baseline’ data and we can then start working with progressive overload towards improvements. The final piece of the jigsaw comes in further observation, watching and taking data from the rider in pre-season training races, early season events where the result is less important than implementing the techniques being worked on in a real-word race situation to see if training adaptations have resulted in performance gains.

Although this whole process is clearly made a lot easier if riders work with coaches, there’s absolutely no reason to think that you can’t implement a similar system of your own to better improve key areas in your training. Use this checklist and apply it to your training sessions and you’ll be training more effectively.

Understanding – Having good knowledge of the best practice for the techniques and skills you are trying to develop

Observation – be aware of what you are actually doing as opposed to what you THINK you are doing, these are often quite different. Video analysis or feedback from other riders for example often reveals things that riders aren’t aware of.

Analysis/Evaluation – With a good understanding of the technique and how well/badly you are performing it, analysis and evaluation are the processes by which you can identify ways to improve on that technique

Baseline testing – Have some measure of how well (or otherwise) you are doing at the start of a programme by performing a test that is repeatable in the future in similar conditions. Heart rate data, power outputs, cadence, road speed – all these things can be used to measure performance and improve on it by a system of progressively overloading the training.

Training ride with Epic-Scott WRT (image: Huw Williams)

Training ride with Epic-Scott WRT (image: Huw Williams)