Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Getting schooled at the university of life.

Alan Couzens, MS (Sport Science), CSCS, PES.

Pic: Big A choosing to spend his break time during the VQ Solvang bike camp chatting rather than eating. In retrospect, not his best choice :-)

Before I get started, I want to apologize in advance for any lack of coherence that may present itself in this piece. When writing the bulk of this, I was 25 hours into a 30hr training week and at that point the body begins to shut down any functions not deemed necessary for survival. Thinking about the content of my latest triathlon blog may fall into that category J But, our team dinner finished early one night and I had some time on my hands, so I gave it a whirl.

The title of this blog comes largely from my Dad. Whenever a topic would come up that he had no formal training in, I would question him on where he got his information. His standard response was “the university of life.” I’d probably throw back some retort on the ease of admission to said school, but, when it comes down to it, I deeply respect the practical intelligence that my father prides himself on. As much as I respect it, my personal strength has always been traditional “book learning”. It’s a funny thing how one’s strengths find a way of manifesting themself in an individual’s profession. For instance, I love to coach, always have, but these days I do it remotely from a lab rather than face to face in the field with my athletes. Mat is a great communicator, I am not. I am a great analyst and, in that sense, I guess I’m filling the right seat on the EC coaching bus.

But, I digress, the thing that got me thinking about real world vs. lab world this week has been our team’s attendance at Robbie Ventura’s VisionQuest Cycling Camp in Solvang, CA. I came into this camp still on the slow and steady volume ramp up since my crash in ’06 (yes, it really does take that long to get your fitness back). Basically that meant 10hr bike weeks of primarily easy-steady intensity training. Despite my low volume, my lab numbers have been solid – MLSS of 280-300W, Peak power well into the 3’s. So, when I first got to thinking about what I might expect from the camp, my initial impression was that, I probably have the engine to hold onto some of these guys, but that, with my low volume, I would poop out early in the piece. Prior to Epic in 06 I had done a number of 30hr weeks in the preceding 6 months. This past year, my biggest weeks were in the low 20’s and they left me pretty rocked.

Surprisingly, here we are at day 5, the endurance is holding up. So far, I’m not feeling too rocked from consistent 6ish hour days and a 30hr week with 400mi of biking (with no drop in average intensity) looks like it’s going to happen. On the flip side, the power numbers, that I felt were my trump card here, aren’t holding up.

Day 1 was by far the most informative, educating 4 hours that I have ever spent learning about cycling. I wasn’t listening to a Robbie V talk or reading the Jeukendreup cycling book that I brought with me. No, I was getting schooled in a different way, on the bike.

So, we roll out nice and easy and warm up to get ready for our first challenge of the week, a 5mi uphill TT. No sweat. I love to climb and am looking forward to seeing what kind of watts I can throw down here at sea level on day 1….

Lesson #1: Size matters!!

I get to the top. 310W 20:xx minutes. Not great, but decent. I paced it pretty conservatively and finished over geared, but with some gas in the tank. I (cautiously) roll down the other side of the climb to regroup with the EC posse on the other side. I ask Mat “what were your numbers?” He fires back “1815”. Dude, I don’t want to know your kj expenditure, just give me the important number, the watts. “No, that’s my time for the climb, not my kj. Oh, I don’t know, 308W”. Pretty much what I expected. Mat and I have had a pretty similar load on the bike over the last little bit. I thought we’d be pretty close together on that one. Also, pretty close to dead on what the lab #’s would suggest.

Of course, the bigger point that I was missing is that despite equal watts, Mat got up the hill ~2 minutes faster than I did.. When going up a hill, absolute watts mean very little. Mat weighs in at ~67kgs, I weigh in at ~77kgs. Therefore, Mat’s W/kg were ~15% better than mine (4.6 vs. 4.0), as was his time up the climb. In order to throw down a similar time up the climb, I would need to put out ~356W at my current bodyweight. I’m not getting any leaner than I am already, so there is only one option: Get stronger and more powerful!!

Not paying too much attention to the time for the climb, I move on and line up with the “fast and long” group for the rest of today’s ride, “the A group”. Robbie says fast is going to be about another 40mi at 18-20mph, No prob. I used to do some group riding with team Florida in Gainesville (RED FLAG: Gainesville is flat!!) and we’d motor along nicely at 20-22mph without too much effort. 18-20 is perfect for an easy end to today’s ride.

So, we get started with a climb. Still feeling good, we’re holding 300-350W up this climb and I’m digging it. I’m actually thinking at that point, how much I miss riding with a group. Then, the descent starts…..

Lesson 2: Skills matter!!

I get dropped by the group on the small descent. Truth be told, I suck at descending. Call it a mix of flashbacks from my crash, my crappy flexibility, my height, my bike position, whatever. All I know is, guys go flying down a mountain past me as an unrecognizable blur. This was no exception. Ordinarily, I wait for the bottom and just TT back to the group, no sweat. But this is no ordinary group and this is no ordinary group ride. It’s first day of camp and everyone wants to mark their territory. The group hadn’t broken up at this point but the pace wasn’t pedestrian. Thankfully, Mat notices that I’m AWOL and sends, superstar, Gardie Jackson back for me. Gardie and the sag pace me back up to the group, but it’s probably a 5-10min bridge at 300+W. That’s gonna hurt a little later in the day. School bell rings, class is out, first lesson of the day complete: I need to either throw my FT up another 50W or man up and get some serious descending practice on the climbs around Boulder this summer if I hope to stay with riders of this calibre.

Notes: After chatting with Robbie and having a chance to practice the last couple of days during my tack-ons, here is what I’ve concluded about improving my personal ability to descend.

- Get in the drops: You increase your stopping power and bike stability ten-fold when you move from the hoods to the drops.
- Get your weight back on the saddle: Much more stable and prevents the possibility of an endo on steep descents.
- Get flexible (or get a custom bike): With my long legs and short torso, I always size down on my bikes. This presents a problem with the drop and I think is the primary reason I don’t use my drops as much as I should.
- Get 90% of your braking done before the turn

- Weight the outside leg

I catch back on and “ring-a-ding”, school’s back in. Still on the subject of skills, I discover that the other aspect of skills that really matters in this group riding thing are pack skills.

Lesson #3: Position matters!!

Position, in two senses of the word, really matters in group cycling.

I get back onto the back of the group and start riding along and chatting with Robbie (who was on my inside). I don’t know if this was a conscious choice of mine at the time, but I just felt more comfortable on the outside. It gives me that little bit of room to check my speed into the wind when needed and, truth be told, fear of the wheel in front of me, probably means I’m pushing into the wind more than I really need to. This preference leads to a lot of aero disadvantages, including those mentioned above and, for a bigger guy, it robs me of the opportunity to sit on the inside when the wind is coming from the left.

The other aspect of position that matters is bike position. After moving back into the group, I make the mistake of finding Matty Stein’s wheel. Now, Mat has two things going for him that makes him a really bad draft choice for a guy like me:

1. He’s almost a foot shorter than me
2. He has the flexibility to almost put his chin on the front wheel.

In real world terms, what does this mean?? At least 30W difference between him and me at the same speed. Mat’s power meter wasn’t working at the time, but JD was rolling along on the front of the group at 177W, while I was struggling to hold the same speed in the group at 205. Life in the peloton isn’t fair for us big, stiff, clumsy guys.

So, what do you get when you mix in:
* 2 threshold bridges at 280-320W (one via crappy descending skills, one via a flat)
* 30 extra watts on the flat than the rest of the group due to equally crappy pack skills and a less than optimal bike position
* A 300kcal deficit because you make the choice that your break time is better spent picking Robbie V’s brain than slamming a coke.

Answer: An ample slice of humble pie as, despite your best efforts, you watch the pack ride away from you.

You’re probably reading this blog thinking ‘duh’, all of these lessons are pretty elementary and are preached in every basic cycling book out there. And you’re right. There’s nothing complex about the lessons that a camp like the VQ camp teaches. Personally, for me, the real value to these sort of camps is in the massive application of these lessons. And the fact that the lessons are accompanied with enough of an emotional punch when you make it through days like the one mentioned above that they really inspire you to action.

This camp provided plenty of opportunities for me to discover my own personal limits and weak points. I have a love-hate relationship with that process. Putting yourself in uncomfortable situations is never easy and often not fun in the moment, but it is the one essential action that will prevent you from stagnating as a person by forcing you to grow. When it comes down to it, in a lot of ways, to me, this is what life is all about.

Needless to say, I’ll be back for more.


KP said...

Great stuff, Big A.

I relate well to all of your experiences out in the field.


Alan Couzens said...

Thanks KP.

Looking forward to sharing some 'experiences in the field' with you come Tucson.



BLM said...

Your Blog is awesome.

Alan Couzens said...

Thanks blm.

Glad you're enjoying it.