“Fuck, this hurts!”
I never fail to have that reaction when in the midst of what has become a regular ritual of pain: a threshold test on my road bike. Usually in the form of a time trial either on the flat or on a hill, the threshold test has become a regular gauge of my progress of a cyclist.
I’m no pro. I have a day job. But I do love to ride and to ride fast.
But to ride fast, you need a plan. It won’t do to just ride lots (contrary to Eddy Merckx, who also had a massive engine and so could just ride lots - if you believe that that’s all that he did to be fast).
To become a fast cyclist, you need structure and precision. You need to plan your workouts and calibrate your rides to defined intensities that lead to improvement. But to do all that, you need a clear picture of where your fitness lies. And this is where the threshold test comes in.
Sports science tells us that speed comes when you can ride as close as possible and as long as possible (relative to the length of your chosen event) to your lactate threshold, that point at which your body produces more lactic acid than it can clear thus causing your muscles to fire less efficiently. Add to this, you become fast when you can put out as much power as possible by riding as close as possible to threshold.
When I started to ride more seriously, all I had, as a gauge of my fitness was my heart rate and perception of effort. But this only told me how fit my heart and lungs were, not my legs.
But today, we have portable power meters that tell another important piece of information: how much power you are putting out when you turn the pedals. The power meter focuses on the most crucial data of how much power your legs can actually produce.
With a power meter, I can measure my power output over a defined period of time.
Then, taking that measurement, I can more precisely calibrate the levels of intensity needed for different kinds of workouts. By doing so, I ensure that my rides are quality rides and not just filled with garbage miles, that is, miles that do nothing to improve my fitness. Again, no offence to Merckx, it means that I won’t just be riding lots without gaining fitness.
Well, all this is appealing, especially if you are a data junkie, as I am. I like to know how fast, how far, and how hard I’ve ridden. And I like to map all this information to develop a bird’s eye view of my progression or regression as a cyclist over time.
I do a fitness test every 6-8 weeks to measure my average power relative to my heart rate and perception of effort, usually over 20 minutes. And this allows me to recalibrate my intensities for workouts to see if I am improving or stagnating or simply getting slower. The tests are a reminder that fitness is not static and is dynamic so that it is always moving in one direction or another.
However, the most significant value of fitness testing is that it supplies perspective. Bradley Wiggins OBE, in close to peak Tour de France form, is able to crank out at least about 450 watts for 30 minutes on the flat. I, on the other hand, am able to crank out about 240 watts for 30 minutes on the flat.
Relative to Wiggins, or any other serious rider for that matter, I know that I am unlikely to give up my day job for a career in cycling.
But the knowledge that I am improving, even as a mere amateur cyclist, is motivating. And if I am motivated to get out and ride, then that’s what it's ultimately all about.
For this reason, fitness testing and the pain of these time-trials are, to my mind, worth it. The tests give me the knowledge to know that I can work on my fitness and get faster.
All of this illustrates a banal but important point. Like success in life, success in cycling is likely to follow from an intelligent and structured, even if sometimes taxing, expenditure of effort.
Or to put the point even more simply but with a twist: no (intelligent) pain, no gain.