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Real Race Training – #TopTipTuesday

Making the most of Time on the Race Bike – Real Race Training

Training I say? Squats you think? The tide is again turning slowly, but it seems for many involved in racing bicycles, at any level or discipline, when we speak about training, most people’s minds think about the “physical”. Intervals, sprints, strength training, “Vo2” and “cardio”. The specific race training, that “big bang for your buck” on your bike training comes a poor second best. In reality working on areas of weakness and specificity; aiming to arrive in any start-gate truly ready to attack any race course should make up not the majority but none the less a well organised portion of your training time. Especially if race progression is your goal. Here are some top-tips you can apply to your real deal on the bike training as all to often if you search our training advice all you’ll find is FTP, zones, barbells and box jumps.

 

1 – Set a Goal: just like going to the gym to work on maximal strength where you will try to lift the heaviest weight possible for four sets of three repetitions, having a goal for your on the bike training is critical. It sets the tone for the whole session and allows you to organise the details. This can be anything from braking points or visualisation pre-run, to bigger picture work like managing intensity over full runs or hitting top gear after only limited practice run/s. A goal should be individual to your needs but it must be defined both for the session planned and placed within the picture of your overall plan. Short range goals in the context of big product goals. More here from the Harvard Business Review.

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2 – Define Your Process: A goal is only achievable with a process to get there – take that first example of working on ‘braking points’. Without a process that goal stays pretty abstract. Aim to define what features that require braking you are truly struggling with, define if you need to brake more, harder, less or more consistently. Define two to three spots on a track where the consequences of good/bad braking points will be evident. Try different braking strategies and then try to time a section that allows you to learn from different braking approaches. Consequences & knowledge of results are a must. We deployed many of these ideas with Thomas Estaque & Hugo Frixtalon HERE

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3 – Focus: staying focused on the task at hand and your goals is a challenge as riding bikes is FUN! This however is also a  key area that many riders, even the best, struggle with at the races. Staying focused on the job of building a race run. You can try many things to improve focus during training. Key words – like “focus on” and then imagine yourself hitting a light switch. OR try riding a fun track between your focused race training runs. Nutrition can help too – planned lunch time, high carbohydrate snacks between runs and stimulants like caffeine could help.

 

4- Own your Mistakes: The best race training is training that is challenging enough that you make errors often. Mistakes are normal and are a great opportunity to learn. Instead of getting angry or upset about an error, own up to it, learn from it and take the opportunity it provides to grow. A mistake, from being a little off line to a huge crash is the outcome of many choices. So dissect and investigate where the mistake came from, see if you can change it short or long term and then move on. Move on happy in the knowledge that you’ve learned and grown as a racer because of it.

 

5 – Rest & Reflect: Rest between runs, especially timed or full runs can be an area often overlooked. Riders want maximum bike time, fun time or feel more is better, when in reality, better is better! Learning (whether emotional or motor skills) requires time for adaptation to occur. Short term and long term. Acute fatigue can be beneficial at times to help teach a rider how to adapt movement and technique for a tired body, but often the best  training happens with a minimal level of freshness and readiness. Likewise this rest time between runs allows the rider time to reflect on lessons learned and experiences gained in the session. Resting for minutes, not seconds between runs can allow you to adjust your goal and processes and make sure you are doing what’s needed to meet the goal set out at the start of the session as well as mitigate the risk of injury.

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Unstable Ideas

Unstable training is characterised by the “athlete” having to control either the position of a joint or many joints and/or centre of mass in such a way to maintain balance in the face of non specific perturbations while potential having to carry out some gross movement.
On the surface, especially from the perspective of the casual observer “unstable” training in relation to MTB performance makes sense. The MTB environment is crazy, has wild bumpy, rocky and muddy terrain and from the 3rd person perspective there is alot of swift and unpredictable movement happening. But the plot begins to thicken once you take the first hand experiences of accomplished riders. While wild moments happen that require sudden movement, MTB is often quite “calm” (from inside the helmet); especially when being done correctly. Hence its appeal, the reward our brain gets comes from the chemical environment created when challenge matches up to ability. A perfect state of competence.

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What actually happens on your MTB, at least for riders who are more than “novice” is that visual perception guides much of our action. This is why looking out of a turn early, looking far ahead enough on the trail at all times and being strong and mobile enough to keep a stable head is CRITICAL to performance. The visual and vestibular systems interact with the rest of the body to allow us to make preparatory movements, posture changes and positional changes on track so we can fully exploit the bodies visco-elastic and muscular properties to smooth out the trail, deal with the impacts and perturbations and of course, most evidently, apply the right technique in the right dose at the right time (skill)! This leads us to a position where the perspective on “unstable” training changes. While unstable training mainly challenges the muscle, joint and tendon (maybe skin too) mechano and proprioceptors & subsequent reflexes to act fast enough or the brain/spine and muscles to carry out the best course of action from that information – MTB requires us to be read the terrain to allow the body to be 100% ready to interact not just react to the perturbations of the track.

Now “reactive” and reflexive skills are needed, but these are too fast and too specific (in my experience at least) for them to be trained on a Bosu ball. Where classic “unstable” training has it’s place is in rehabilitation from injury. The proprioceptive function at injury sites or even above and below injury sites can be severely hampered after said injury so in this case general overload of balance systems and reflexes is very warranted; repetition in the safer gym environment, I even go as far as adding in unilateral and TRX type work in almost all training plans to keep a minimal dose of balance and control challenging exercises in a program. But when it comes to training that actually has a long term non rehabilitative performance enhancing effect…..well it’s all about repeatedly producing as much force as possible in the shortest time while maintaining the shapes or “posture” needed to execute technique while controlling center of mass. The more force we can produce the less “activation” a given movement requires, in theory this means less noise, less fatigue and better fluidity to your movement. On top of that the structural changes that quality plyometrics, heavy compound lifts and other high force moves create likely lead to changes across the structures that work across all joints in the body that must be controlled in order to create those key postures or “shapes” as Stuart McMillan would say.

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So while there is a time and place for unstable or instability training it’s not very often. Training to improve stabilisation reflexes or proprioceptive function is useful but alone it won’t get you very far. The mountain bike athlete can see what challenges await – the premise of unstable training is that you have no idea what is coming next and while to the casual on-looker our placed perched on top of our mountain bike looks like a balance challenge in reality it is a very stable place, especially for the capable rider.

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The magnitude and accuracy of the activation of top down controlled muscle action that is needed for sport skill can only truly be trained while doing the sport. Improving our potential to perform in the gym is what the work done between those four walls is about. The more force we can produce and the better our visco-elastic and skeletal muscle is at dealing with the demands of maintaining posture while executing technique the more robust our movement is on the bike. Basically better biological tissue function leading to true biological degeneracy. From that comes the illusion of effortless control as seen by the by-stander. We all want to ride like this but unstable surface training will not help you get there it will only help you back from injury.

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Coiled – World Cup #1 2019

Actual Rule & Organisation changes

Probably the biggest change of note is for ladies racing. The top 5 ladies in the “current” overall standings get “Group A” practice for 2019; a change that should of happened long ago. For those that don’t know the WC practice sessions are split into two groups, A and B with B usually being juniors, ladies and elite men ranked outside the top 115 or so (this changes depending on entry numbers), Since 2018 the top 10 junior men get Group A practice on Friday and a spot in the timed training session but then get shoved back into Group B from Saturday. Historically the ladies have always been given the rough end of the stick getting Group B practice for all sessions. This means usually eating breakfast at around 0630 most days to then get body and bike ready for practice at 0800; with early season April or late season September events not to mention potential ice-cold Alpine mornings mid-summer Group B get a rough start, having to bed in a track while also dealing with cold tyres and suspension. Only to get back on track the next day to find to totally decimated by the top dogs in Group A. Anyways, long story short the top 5 ladies are now in Group A all weekend long AND get an extra hour more than any other riders on race day morning too. So a plus for the ladies as environment nurtures performance, genotype/phenotype etc… So this, at least in my opinion, a big positive change for the sport. Exact details and issues TBC!

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Elsewhere after Tahnée Seagrave’s DSQ in Leogang 2018 the “outside” the tape rule has again been re-written for clarity (after being changed toa far more rigid rule after Rachel Atherton’s out of course victory in Windham 2015). The rule now reads that the course must be protected with tape or barriers and “If a rider exits the course for any reason, he/she must return to the course between the same two course markers where he/she exited. In case a rider fails to return to the course as provided for in this article, the commissaires’ panel can disqualify the rider.”

This is quite a change from the previous version of the rule; now more specific and reintroduces the possibility of interpretation

The other rule(s) of note are to do with final runs, qualifying and TV. Last years bonafide shit show race run orders based off of qualifying but not should now be sorted. Basically the Top 10 from last years overall are protected from the year and as such will most likely always be on RB TV. The next best 10 in the current seasons overall standings are also protected (same as last year) but now any 5 riders who are not in either of the two previous groups who qualified in the top 5 will take their spot in reverse order in finals as it was until 2018. Sorted!

No need to mention the wheel-size rule change as it has been well covered!

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Pre-Season Competitions

Same old, but different – there’s always been the need, want and desired for riders to brush of winter cobwebs and hit some pre-season events, sun, dust or not. Mainly aiming for any race on a rough track that allows you to ramp up the real-deal intensity and get a feel for what racing is again (just simply to remind yourself you have not forgotten) and dig into the limitations of your off-season preparations to date.

Not that stakes are any higher than before now – but it does seem that budgets are growing for many teams and as such pre-season racing for many seems to now come book ended with testing camps – something like; ride, test, race, rest, ride and test! Big commitment and if the races to date this season are anything to go by it is working for more than a few.

Proof in pudding comes this Sunday in Maribor and as is always the case the environment and surroundings of a World Cup mean even the best of pre-season testing camps can leave you short changed if basic emotions are not managed and the “P’s” ticked off.

PC - Red Bull Content Pool
PC – Red Bull Content Pool

Past, Present and Potential

This section could meander on for hours, thousands of words… on the tip of my tongue though as i write this though is thoughts of generations. The 2019 season, if you whip out the start list, has, in all elite categories a volatile mix of abilities and generations; maybe it’s happened before? But 2019 has rapid first and second year juniors in elite men, old dogs like Minnaar and Gwin with no shortage of pace, race winners and podium killers like Vergier, Pierron, Shaw, Iles, Walker and Greenland all give or take the same rip young age with a stack of riders spanning the years between Minnaar as patriarche and kids like Kade Edwards fresh out of juniors. The mix of pace, power, poise, experience and wildness is pretty crazy. Coming back to the point above though about team camps, racing and testing many juniors now have the backing, support structures and team-mates to help transfer experience that the junior – elite transition can be lightning fast!

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I’m not gonna say names; but some pre-season form has been clear from about 5 elite male riders; beyond that I think a mix of last years break-outs and stand-outs, the wise old dogs and the wild youth is gonna give us a varied top 10 at every race.

 

Junior times will be compared to elites, even quicker than before by the eagle eyed fan and team managers.

 

The ladies racing was struck a huge blow with Myriam Nicoles injury but Seagrave, Atherton, a fitter Tracey Hannah, a comfy looking Cabirou and a dangerous Hrastnik will hopefully battle hard. Siegenthaler and two to three others including Morgane Charre can easily be in the mix.

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Wheelin’ n’ Dealin’

Less caring about wheel diameter the better please!

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Last Breath – World Cup Finals

Fresh venue, fresh track and maybe even some fresh approaches from some of the world’s best for World Cup Finals.

Twice in a season, new venues book ending what has been a super competitive and diverse racing year, Losinj in Croatia was not a “new” track before its world cup debut. It had hosted many Croatian and Slovenian national races but evolved in to a far more refined and demanding beast as a WC track. In stark contrast to all the keyboard warrior dribbling that surrounded the Croatian tracks apparent “easiness”, the brand new La Bresse track that greats us this week has received little attention – likely because everyone, keyboard jockeys included, have been wrapped up in the endless week in week out racing that we’ve had since June, WC’s, Crankworx, National events etc… So where does that leave us? Well we have a new track and a new venue (the 2011 World Cup was in La Bresse town, 2018 has us in the nearby Hohneck ski resort), regardless of how “bike-park” it is, how short it is or any other potential issue, it’s a fresh challenge, fresh scenery and the last chance to punch out a good result so that means BANG motivation will, for the healthy, be through the roof. Absolutely peaking.

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Current Situation

As it is World Cup finals a lot of talk will be about points and prizes! As three of the four series overalls are already decided the battles will mainly be for the “podium” spots; 2nd overall is tight and winnable for some but really the only battle in those categories is for the race positions themselves. For every single racer come Saturday – race day will be the only thing that matters; wins and podium pictures matter most. The last title to be decided is the elite ladies. 110 points separate Tahnée from Rachel in First. After chopping the deficit down to 60 points after qualifying in MSA – Tahnée’s less than perfect finals run execution landed her in 2nd and the gap grew to 110.

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Unlike all the other races this year finals in La Bresse sees no points awarded for qualifying, it’s all in for finals. 250 for the win! So after a quick bash on the Casio GX4561 – if Tahnée wins on Saturday, Rachel must finish 5th or worse in finals. As we said above; wins matter most to the racers at the cutting edge. So as every race-day gone in 2018 this Saturday will be no different.


Fresh Track

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Quebec Calling

Next week will be the 21st visit for a UCI World Cup or Champs to the hallowed hills of Mont Sainte Anne just outside Beaupré, Quebec. A yearly pilgrimage that somehow doesn’t seem to to bore even the most seasoned of veteran. Possibly due to the high speeds, the easily shreddable rideable terrain regardless of a weather and the maybe more than anything else the family holiday vibe that grows as the days pass, due in no small part to the MTB community renting every chalet, house and condo along the short MSA strip!

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The mountains of Quebec like those south of the border in North Eastern USA are big, but not the imposing “boom” straight up walls of rock that often great riders and racers in the European Alps. Instead MSA gives us big, shallow and long. Three potentially key ingredients that keep the race puzzle here fresh for so many, less braking more ploughing? This lack of steepness doesn’t lead to a lack of intensity though, from the first heavy pedal stroke out of the start house, down the now iconic rolling start-ramp things get fast, quickly and just keep building in momentum from there.

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2017 gave us yet another round with a mixed bag of weather.  The 4.00 p.m. rain party rolling in on queue again. Un-phased Aaron Gwin displayed all the calm, calculated characteristics that have led to him to wrapping up 5 overall titles to date. Riding under the rain, straighter and faster than anyone else. Bagging in the process the full quota of points on offer in the overall title battle that day.

Coming into qualifying Gwin trailed Minnaar by 253 points – 3 more than you can earn in one week’s racing. Leaving MSA the deficit between the two titans was so reduced that it left the final round in Val di Sole as an all or nothing battle. What we all learned in the process though, was that anything can and will happen and as long as you come prepared and willing, victory on race day is possible.

The 2017 ladies race in MSA was contested under fair and consistent conditions. Although on a more damp, blown out track that was considerably harder to push your limits on than then was ridden in qualifying. Qualis saw Myriam Nicole eek out a 1.491 sec margin on Tracey Hannah. When Race day rolled in though things changed. In now expected fashion Tahnée Seagrave flipped a 4+ second quali deficit into a race winning display of calculated on edge riding. 5.7 seconds faster than second place Nicole.

Clean Slate

Rumbling in to MSA this coming week for the 2018 race the only constant is change. Maybe that’s a large part of the reason everyone is so stoked to go racing? In no particular order, on the men’s side, we have the return of Moir and Minnaar from injury, the latter has been rehabbing in style, in the most specific way possible slapping bumps on Morzine’s infamous Le Pléney. The former has already practiced at Andorra World Cup and hopefully is ready for racing. With the return of some, the biggest notable absence for MSA is 2017 winner Gwin, at least that’s the info available to hand at the moment. Race day will tell more!

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Pierron (Amaury) has a healthy lead in the overall, but as 2017 thought us with 2 races left anything can happen. On fire at French Champs in Morzine, Pierron is the man to beat, even though his compatriot Vergier had one of the most stunning race runs in recent times on route to his maiden WC victory in Andorra. Luca Shaw will be as hungry as ever although a hungry not quite as grumbling as Loic Bruni’s, 2018 podium first timers Reece Wilson & Thomas Estaque will go good on the long, fast bumps of the Mont. 2017’s FTD title at MSA went to Finn Iles on a dry track, after his first elite podium in Vallnord he’ll be keen to climb a few steps higher at home. Other’s to watch closely are Harrison, MacDonald, Greenland, Pierron (Baptiste), Walker, Mulally and the Eagle Masters.

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The ladies race gives us one the most interesting title battles in years – even after a DSQ in Leogang, Tahnée is just 80 points behind a resurgent Rachel Atherton. After missing two races Myriam is back, a much needed world class rider in the field. Three ladies with the pace and killer instinct needed to win but with three totally different approaches to doing so, watching how the week unfolds as we build to race day will be most interesting. The eagle eyed analyst may have seen how the split times and sector demands of the shorter and longer tracks have played out for the women this year. With a pattern emerging. MSA’s length and high speed impacts may favour the brave, but the brave and conditioned even more.

The Track

At least one new section, dubbed “Tarzan” otherwise pretty unchanged from the past 2-3 years – no matter what, racing will be fast, straight, high speed whether in or out of the woods. We would say bikes take a hammering but those days are beyond us now.

 

Winning Ways

What “approach” does it take to win at MSA? Well I don’t think I’ve personally attended enough races at MSA to know the finer details just yet, but from the experience I have at the venue it’s directness and confidence on the less confidence inspiring sections that counts. Race strategy is built by race tactics…tactics for practice, for each run, for sections, for sectors and finally for the race run it self. Braking just at the right time, some call it late braking, is crucial; as carrying the huge speed generated as free momentum into the subsequent sections here is paramount. No point in not using those speeds built on the flat out piste to keep your wagon wheels ploughing over rocks and boulders as you transition from open to wooded sections.

Subtle but convincing changes of direction on the loose, fast piste sections, total conviction and commitment to line choice in the slab infested woods, wet or dry, braking just “late” enough, soft transitions from edge to edge of you tyres and no let up in the “fitness”  abilities needed to take the hits, deal with the impacts and hold and coax the bike from line to line, rock to boulder!

So maybe that’s the formula, total subtle committed conviction!?

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