I started cycling quite late in life, at age 24, and so I had to improve quickly if I wanted to race professionally. In my quest to improve quickly, I focused on my short-term metrics such as power and race results, because that was the easiest way to measure my progress. While this helped me move through the ranks quickly, it also left some gaps in my knowledge that I had to go back and learn later. Over the last few years, I have had a lot of novice racers reach out to me with questions about starting late in life. I want to write down some knowledge I shared with them in case it helps others who are new to the sport decide how to prioritize their time.
First, I think the best cyclists are T shaped (broad in many areas, and deep in one area). Our breadth is what allows us to not get dropped in a race, and our deep area is how we win. I wish I had approached my training with this mindset when I started. Instead, when I started cycling, I invested in areas that I was good at and where I could easily measure my progress – such as power numbers, cat upgrading, and race results. I did not invest in things where my progress was slow or less visible, such as technical skills (doing group rides to learn positioning or drafting effectively, riding rollers to improve my balance, descending smoothly, spending time on a TT or mountain bike, mixing in cadence intervals, sprinting, riding a single speed bike, or doing other technique drills). I avoided crit races because I was bad at crits, and instead I did long, climby races I could excel in. I ended up being very well specialized, but not well rounded. I was strong physically, but didn’t have the technical foundation, and ultimately that held me back when I began racing in Europe. During my second year in Europe, I invested more in well-rounded technical skills. I hired a consultant to teach me how to descend better, I spent more time on my TT and gravel bikes, attended a track camp to improve my top-end power, and I saw drastic improvements in subsequent races. Investing in areas that made me more T-shaped ultimately set me up better for long-term success.
Second, I would have told myself to be comfortable with imperfection. Whenever I did my workouts, I wanted to find the perfect terrain for each workout. I only did intervals on straight, flat roads or climbs with a consistent gradient because it was harder to hit my power numbers if the road was bumpy, curvy, or rolling. In reality, the terrain in a race will never align perfectly for our efforts, and our bodies will benefit from learning how to adapt to stress under different conditions. It’s important that we train our bodies to go hard under different stimuli and conditions, because that’s what we need to do in a race. This year, I started to mix up the terrain for my workouts so that I become comfortable riding hard in different environments. I even try riding in crosswinds on windy days, rather than a direct headwind or tailwind. I try to simulate race situations by riding hard before the base of the climb and cresting over the top at full gas, rather than just going hard on the climb. I also tried holding consistent power on climbs with inconsistent gradients. Becoming “race” fit requires more than fitness; it requires being strong and adaptable in different situations. We can improve race fitness by mixing up our training routes, hill gradients, ride partners, routes, and cadence. These are tricks that I wish I had done early on, as it would have benefited me more in the long-term.
Third, I wish I knew that recovery is as important as training. The mental fatigue from travel, stress, or even living away from home can hinder recovery. I set aside extra time each day for yoga, stretching, 1-on-1 time with friends, and light walks. At races, I find that I need extra alone time to decompress; I do this by spending a bit of time alone in my room or listening to calming music on the bus. I even wake up earlier than my teammates so I can have some time to myself in the morning. If something is stressful in my personal life, I need to deal with it right away, so it doesn’t impact my training. If we don’t recover well, we can’t train well, and even “easy” days have a very important training purpose. To go faster, we need to know how to rest properly.
When I first became a pro cyclist and moved to Europe, my coach said to me that “Training is the easy part.” I didn’t appreciate his words at the time, but he was right. For me, the most difficult parts of being a pro cyclist in Europe is not the training; it’s the ongoing travel, sharing a hotel room with someone who snores, living far from home, the pressure to perform, managing injuries, communicating across cultural & language barriers, maintaining my body, and all the other challenges that come with bike racing. I needed to adjust my nutrition habits and eat a lot more on the bike, which is something I still struggle with. I needed to learn to speak up when my body feels weak, instead of trying to push through it. Bike racing requires a lot of work and skills off the bike; knowing these challenges ahead of time helped me better prepare for them.
I hope that some of these insights are new and valuable to you. If you have any questions about them, feel free to reach out to me on Instagram @arcticfaulks and I’ll do my best to respond.