Training smarter will make you a better cyclist

With a big race looming large on the horizon, Jon Hawkins decides it’s time to get help from the experts at Matt Roberts. And that means leaving his bike at home

If you’re the kind of person who dreams about carbon fibre and thinks in rpm and bpm, there’s a good chance you’ll have read Tim Krabbé’s frank, brutal and brilliant 1978 novella The Rider, which chronicles the events of a bike race in France. That description undersells it somewhat – The Rider captures everything that’s simultaneously great and terrible about cycling, cut through with a withering disdain for those who aren’t in on the secret. “The greater the suffering, the greater the pleasure,” says the author, himself a competitor in the race. “That is nature’s payback to riders for the homage they pay her by suffering.”

Sometimes, though, you just don’t want to straddle the wobbly tightrope between pleasure and pain – all you want is to ride your bike a bit faster. That’s how I find myself in the bright and spartan Matt Roberts gym in Mayfair, surrounded by weights, kettlebells and mats – exactly the kind of things I’ve always rejected in favour of longer, harder miles in the saddle. There are no shortcuts to cycling quicker for longer, but, as my personal trainer keeps reminding me (now there’s something I never thought I’d write), you can certainly train smarter.

My programme at Matt Roberts begins with a sit-down chat with Tiago, the trainer who’s been assigned to help me go from fitness zero to fitness hero. We start by talking about my lifestyle (rock and roll, obviously), my current level of activity (varied, unfocused) and what I’m looking to achieve (greatness, basically, but I’ll settle for some extra speed on the bike – and rock-hard abs). As it happens, in a couple of months’ time I’m off to Italy with friends to take on the 90km bike leg of a triathlon, so there’s a looming incentive not to rest on my laurels or lapse into a chocolate abyss.

it isn’t just about training harder; it isn’t even about training for longer; and it certainly isn’t about suffering greater

Tiago asks me to stretch, lift and extend so he can take a few benchmark measurements, which culminates in a brutal time trial on a static bike. The name of the game is to push myself as hard as I can over 20 minutes, throughout which Tiago takes my heart rate and asks me to tell him, on the minute, how hard I think I’m pushing, from 0 to 10. By about minute 16 – sweat pouring off me like Niagara; breath deeper than the Mariana Trench – the scale’s run out of numbers.

Interestingly, and mercifully, the gym-based programme Tiago creates for me involves no more time on the bike – that’s for me to fit into my own time. Instead, each hour-long session focuses on working a particular part of my body, with intense circuits that take in the gym’s resistance machines, plus some mat work and free weights.

One day I could be working the legs, while the next time I visit it might be my core or my arms – whatever the focus, Tiago and often his colleague Omar help me through it with a mixture of encouragement, good humour and just the right amount of pushiness. The programme also includes a full nutritional review to make sure my diet’s in line with my fitness goals (which can mean eating more of the right things, as much as fewer of the wrong ones), so it extends beyond just the gym.

It’s tough – and emphatically not a cheat’s route to improved fitness – but each session leaves me both shattered, euphoric, and feeling like I’m making progress. As the programme comes to an end, I’m genuinely disappointed.

When I line up at the start of the race, jump on my bike and set off into a balmy Sardinian morning, the signs are promising. So, as it turns out, is the result – I’m not going to be following Chris Froome up a mountain any time soon, or beating Peter Sagan in a sprint, but I’ve gone faster than I’d ever have expected. My bike computer confirms it’s the quickest I’ve ridden in years.

As it turns out, it isn’t just about training harder; it isn’t even about training for longer; and it certainly isn’t about suffering greater. It’s all about training smarter. If only I’d been smart enough to figure that out sooner.

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