Cyclists love empiric data. As they say in so many endurance sports, the numbers don’t lie.
And yet most endurance athletes with any amount of experience grow pretty good at lying to themselves. It’s a necessity some days. When the cadence drops and the wind is bullying down your throat, you don’t really care if your RPMS hover in the low 70s rather than the mid90s. If a bigger gear gets you through the miserable miles on the wheel of the rider ahead, all good. Cadence be damned.
Which makes the act of riding on a stationary bike in an FTP test something quite interesting to face. The commiserative moaning and groaning about the pending pedalfest was fair enough warning that it would not be easy. But what about cycling ever is? I’ve only been on a bike three times this year. The warmups feel hard at first.
So it could have been embarrassing when the coach went through the numbers one by one after the class had completed its 20-minute FTP. My numbers were singularly unimpressive. My engine does not crank out high wattage by dint of will. I already knew that. I’ve been at this endurance sports game since I was twelve. Learned to accept that without a healthy base, you’re nowhere.
After the event, another coach quietly asked me, “Were you happy with your FTP test?” Of course not. I muttered, “No.” And that’s about all there was to say. The numbers don’t lie, you see. 168 watts on average is nothing to brag about. The resounding silence is real.
But it’s nothing to be ashamed of, either. Because my focus during the ride, whether this was smart or not, was on keeping my cadence at or near 90. You can see from the early spike that the gear I was assigned to ride was not going to happen. And the 220 level I was assigned was just eyeballed from the outset of my setup at the Sweat Shop. It was not based on any prior data.
There was no way my riding was going to continue at an output of 280 watts. My legs would have imploded. Yet one gear down felt manageable. Sustainable. My legs were feeling it, and there were 19 minutes to go.
So I kept my eyes on the RPMs. What else was there to do? One could argue, since my watts were well below the threshold of 220 assigned by the Computrainer, that was a mistake. I only crossed the red line into Gloryland a few times.
But damn was I consistent on that cadence. I stared at that green bar with intensity the whole time. Coach came by and said, “I like that face.” Because I look like a haggard old hawk when I stare. Always have. Always will.
It’s my… “This may suck but I don’t give up easily” look.
During the test, Coach Rick came by a couple times and glanced at the red bar indicating my low wattage status. Nothing was said, but it was obvious Red is no one’s favorite color in an FTP test. I was bleeding watts, and it was not a pretty sight.
But my Green Happy Place continued on. Mr. Cadence, I was. Maybe I’ll adopt that name now that the local group of hospitals formerly named Cadence has been absorbed by a big Purple Monster named Northwestern Medicine. You can’t compete in the world of healthcare these days if you can’t push the Big Ring.
As for little old me, many times over the years I’ve been counseled by good cyclists to “stay in the small ring” for the first 1000 miles of the season. Don’t push the big gears until you’re ready and the legs have built up the small capillaries necessary to sustain both cadence and endurance.
An FTP test goes completely against this logic, which has, by the way, worked well for me a number of years. Build fitness on a base, then add in intervals, then speed. Works in running. Cycling. Maybe even swimming.
Don’t get me wrong. I go against conventional training practices all the time. Even though I run only 15-20 miles a week in training, I still do hard speed work once a week that makes up about 20% of my total runs. That worked to get me a 42:00 10k last fall, a two-minute improvement over the year before. That’s a pretty decent return on investment, I think.
Back when I started cycling seriously ten years ago, I raced in criteriums 11 times that first year. I accepted the fact that you need to go fast in order to improve. A local bike shop sponsors weekly criterium races at an underdeveloped industrial park near my home. Last year I didn’t race there at all due to other obligations and priorities. So my speed and wattage likely suffered for that lack of high-pressure riding. Criteriums, like the Computrainer, do not lie. You either stick with the bunch or you get dropped.Still, I rode homestyle crits on the big block near my house, and averaged just over 20mph on the Felt last summer.
As for Computraining, I expect the same principles to go to work. Repetition builds muscle, which builds aerobic capacity. Then you can build speed and watts. Otherwise, you’re just fooling yourself. Not facing up to reality. Fitness does not happen by magic. I have never been the guy with the automatic Big Engine. Yes, I was better than many at the running thing. But it always took work, hard work, to achieve a decent level of fitness. And I learned the hard way that I was not world class, or really anywhere near it. But not for lack of trying. Won my share of races, and am happy to have that in the bank of good memories.
Fortunately, my mountain bike wheel is now repaired (broken spoke) and my Specialized Rockhopper is ready for some miles in February. That will be good base work.
And yesterday, in a tantalizing moment, I got to glimpse and lift the new matte black Specialized Venge Expert bike that was ordered and assembled for me at Mill Race Cyclery. As soon as I pay off the rest of that baby with cash, and after a bike fit, it’s mine to ride.
Because while I love the Waterford in terms of look and feel, it has never been fitted to my body. I jerked the seat way up front for last night’s riding and who knows if that was the right or wrong thing to do. I was just guessing. I’ve been wobbling back and forth during every ride in Computraining. Surely that’s a bit of wasted energy. You think?
Like most things in life, guesswork about the bike gets you nowhere fast. Which is why we all do FTP tests. To remove the guesswork and figure out what kind of bloody watts we’re all cranking out.
It’s something you have to face sooner or later. Might was well get at it.