Cause and Effect in Pro Cycling
How it relates to your performance
By David Van Orsdel
My first years racing in Europe were eye opening to say the least. For my first training rides my DS told me, if you want to be a pro, go to the main roundabout in Bussolengo, a small town outside Verona, Italy, and meet up with the pros and other U23/Elite riders at 10 am. “They already know you’re coming. Don’t be late”
The next day I went and started my indoctrination to European training methods of the time with the local stars of the time like Damiano Cunego, Michael Rasmussen, Roman Kreuziger, Daniele Pietropoli, Pietro Cauchioli and even a super young Davide Formolo.
Day after day, we went out to slog away on the daily routine of 4-6 hours with various climbs peppered in - plenty of time to learn about pro training methods at the top of the sport. In the following weeks, months, and years I ended up learning a ton about what it takes to make it at that level, but, probably more importantly, I learned what not to do.
At that time, many pros still subscribed to questionable, if not debunked, training and preparation methods. Some of my favorites include:
Only fueling with 1 small bottle of water and banana for long rides. This was presumably meant to aid in weight loss and likely came from the idea that eating and drinking was a sign of weakness
Bundling up in winter tights, jackets, and hats (no helmets in training back then) until the temperature hit at least 20C (68F). This was meant to make sure you don’t get sick or injured and aid in weight loss (nobody seemed to question that most of that weight “loss” was due to a state of likely dehydration). Additionally, I always had the sneaking suspicion that it was also meant to be a signal to everyone that if you’re all bundled up, it meant you didn’t have to work that hard and were riding along cool as a cucumber.
Measuring effort by gear ratio and kilometers despite the advent of the power meter almost 3 decades previous. Some training mates would hardly touch the big chainring until a couple of weeks before the opening races, as this is what had always been done, rather than for any scientific reason.
The belief (among some) that the only way to really get in shape was to ride 6 hours on the small ring each day, Monday through Saturday, take Sunday off and then repeat for 2 months. The only half hearted attempt at defining intensity was “turn the gear agile, and ride on rolling terrain with a few 4-7km climbs.”
The (in)famous removal of the inside of the bread because “the inside makes you gain weight”. Likewise, pizza was off-limits during training and racing season. To this day, I’m still not sure why pizza was demonized so much.
If this all sounds completely contrary to or dismissive of performance science, I can assure you that it absolutely is, and that training methods in the European peloton have evolved considerably in the last 15 years. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this experience is that often pros are not fast because they employ certain “training” philosophies, but rather in spite of it. This is true in everything from training, to bike fit, to nutrition, and equipment applications.
To drive this point home, Ignition Co-Owner Dylan Johnson is fond of the analogy of tire pressure. In the past, it was widely accepted that a narrower tire run at the highest possible pressure was the fastest set-up. Now, data shows us that more pressure is not faster and that wider tires are actually faster (to a point). However, errors in performance beliefs are not the only reason that copying stronger riders is not a winning strategy.
Copying what someone else is doing is rarely going to bring success, especially in the long term. Each individual is different, and having a coach who knows you, your goals, schedule, and how you react to different types of training is key to the big picture approach that will actually make you faster.
But if the pros do X, they surely have a coach telling them this is the best way, right? Well, not necessarily. Even if that happens to be the case, there are a lot of reasons it’s not a great idea to copy anyone, especially a pro.
Let’s have a look:
Different objectives - World Tour Pros race over 70 days a year, often for 10 days to 3 weeks in a row. This is a completely different energy demand than even the most demanding one day races such as Leadville, Unbound, or a series of criterium races and training must be adjusted accordingly to have the best result for your particular goals.
Different ability - can you actually handle the volume and intensity? While you may eventually be able to handle the volume and intensity of the sport’s heroes, building up to the ability to handle that amount of training load takes years.
3. Different resources - at the top level, everything is measured from nutrition to
body mass, etc., sometimes on a daily basis. This is something that amateurs and
even neo pros at a continental level do not have, so while you may be spot on in
reproducing the photocopy of a workout, or even a full training program, there is a
lot of behind the scenes work that goes undocumented to the public. By following a
personalized training program written by your own coach, you’ll actually be far more
“pro” than most riders, even if your actual profession involves more Zoom meetings
than race days and you spend more time in your desk chair than in the saddle.
4. Different types of stress. Maybe it doesn’t show up on TSS, but there is a very real
impact of everyday stress on training and performance. If you overlook the fact that
your day is likely very different from a pro, you could very well be on the fast track to
overtraining and burnout. Personalized coaches can help immensely with this. They
can help maximize your training potential based around your specific goals and
The moral of the story? Though someone may be training in a certain way, eating a certain diet, or making certain equipment choices, it does not guarantee that emulating that person will get you the same results (it’s probably better to say it’s extremely unlikely). That individual may be faster than you despite training less effectively, eating poorly, and riding with an inferior equipment setup, or may have other favorable factors that allow a higher level or performance than you. For better or for worse, cycling is an incredibly complex and nuanced sport that requires careful guidance and a critical eye to reach your best performance, taking in your big picture, not someone else's.
Work with a coach who understands you and can understand what you’re doing day to day and your specific stressors to tweak your training to get the most out of you taking into account the whole picture from where you’re coming from, to where you are right now, to where you want to go.