Monday, May 27, 2013

Training for my Second Brevet: How Did I Do?

This picture has nothing to do with this post.
It is one of four water glasses depicting bicycles, a set given to me by my close friend, L.
I am including pictures of these in this post to break up a very dry narrative.

As described in my previous post, my third attempt at a brevet was a success both on an absolute basis (e.g. I completed the ride) and relative to my first brevet a year earlier (e.g. I completed the ride more quickly.) More subjectively, my long training rides getting ready for this brevet seemed easier than before. During March, April, and the beginning of May, I increased the length of my long ride from 40 to 90 miles. Although these long training rides were often difficult, they never felt as difficult as they had been in my previous two attempts, I was never in serious danger of not completing them, and I always had a little something left even at the end of a ride that felt hard.

Over the last year, I have made a number of changes both to my equipment and to my training and in this post, I will evaluate as best I can the effect of these changes. The qualifier "as best I can" is critical. As a scientist, I would not draw any conclusions from one ride by one rider, but this is real life and I have no choice but to make decisions based on whatever information I have.

My Training Program

In previous posts, I have described my current plan for periodized training including base phase and build phase. The build phase was completed pretty much as planned. An important kind of training ride in this plan is the Maximum Aerobic Function (MAF) test, which I have also previously described. 

In summary, this training plan had three major changes relative to my previous training:
1) It included a one month transition phase where I did no training.
2) It included a three month base phase where MAF test rides were the most important part of my training.
3) As before, my build phase focused is on a weekly long ride, each one 10% longer than the one before. The changes I made in my build phase were that the other rides each week often were a continuation of the MAF tests from the base phase, and that the long rides were ridden more slowly than before.

How I Think My Training Worked

  1. When I began training for my first brevet, I did not have time for a base phase and had done only a small amount of riding training during the previous months. On the up side, I was well rested. For my build phase, I followed the century training program from "Long-Distance Cycling", modifying it to work up to 124 rather than 100 miles. Following this plan, I barely reached a level of fitness needed to complete the brevet.
  2. At that time, I was unaware of the concepts of overtraining or periodization and so did not include enough recovery between completing my first brevet and beginning preparation for my second. As a result, my preparation for a second brevet failed.
  3. I do not have an opinion if taking a month off training was helpful to my third attempt.
  4. I believe the base training both contributed to my recovery from my first and second attempts, leaving me more rested, and gave me a foundation of aerobic fitness that allowed me to more comfortably complete my buildup for and riding of the brevet.
  5. I believe that riding my long rides more slowly during the build phase was a very beneficial change that gave me most if not all the benefits of the buildup without the same amount of stress, stress that would have contributed to overtraining.

Alternative Explanations

Above, I explain how I think my training affected my first three attempts at riding a 200K brevet. There are other possible explanations for the same facts besides the ones I believe, and here are a few:
  1. My second attempt at a brevet failed due to the luck of the draw. The day I attempted a 90 mile training ride happened to be a bad day for me, this coincidence decided the issue, and I should not draw any conclusions from that failure.
  2. My subjective claims that my third set of long training rides were "not as hard" as my first and second sets is a false memory. 
  3. The significant difference between my unsuccessful second and successful third attempts at a brevet was that I had been training for a longer period of time by the third try. To put it another way, my second attempt at a brevet was not a failure, but part of the training that made my third attempt successful. 
  4. The reason my second brevet was faster than my first was because I spent more time riding with a group and/or because I had a lot more training leading up to it (see above.)
I take these alternative explanations seriously and always keep an open mind while thinking about training. That said, it is my subjective opinion that these alternatives do not explain the success of my third brevet. The basis for my subjective opinion is the sum total of "how I felt" on each of my training rides. For example, I was feeling especially good when I started my last long (90 mile) training ride, and was also a little nervous about having ridden the previous long rides slowly, so I rode that last ride rather quickly. The result was that it took me a long time to recover from that ride, compromising my taper phase. Although this was not a fatal mistake, I think my taper was not as good as it should have been, reinforcing my subjective opinion that riding the long training rides slowly is a beneficial change.

Changes to Equipment

In preparation for my second brevet, I also made the following equipment changes:
  1. I raised my handlebars by 3 inches using a stem extender. As I previously posted, this made riding on the top of the handlebars more comfortable and the drops possible. To get better at using the drops, I ride all my MAF tests on the drops. On the brevet, the pain in my arms and shoulders I experienced on the first brevet was completely absent. I still had some pain in my hands and wrists. I was able to use the drops, though not as much as I think I should have. I plan to work on that in the future.
  2. I replaced stock Surly plastic saddle with a well broken in Brooks B17 saddle. The good news is that, unlike last time, I did not develop saddle sores. My rear was sore by the end of the ride to the extent that I would be willing to consider alternative saddles.
  3. I replaced the 28 mm Specialized Armadillo tires on my bike with 32mm Grand Bois Extra L├ęger tires. These tires are recommended by Jan Heine of Compass Cycles. (I got the tires from Harris Cyclery.) The Armadillos I inflate to 90 pounds per square inch (psi), the Grand Bois I inflate to 75 psi. The idea is that the wider cross section and lower pressure result in a more comfortable ride, but that the thinner casing results in a rolling resistance just as low or lower. I love these tires! The increased ride comfort was quite noticeable.  My impression is that they were "faster", but when I tried to demonstrate that by looking at MAF tests ridden with the two tires, the other factors influencing MAF test results made it impossible to do so (see below.)
  4. I cobbled together a holder for my queue sheet. Last year, I put the queue sheet in a zip-loc bag and carried it in my jersey pocket. As all the experts note, that makes it awkward to use. This year, I clipped the zip-loc bag to my handlebars and brake cables. I was very concerned that this would be unstable and would generate too much wind resistance. In fact, the arrangement was completely stable and there was no noticeable wind resistance on a very windy ride. This year's course was much more difficult to follow than last year's, and so the greatly improved access to the queue sheet was very appreciated. I am still looking for a better way to carry my queue sheet, but if I don't find one, I would definitely do this again rather than carry the queue sheet in my jersey.

Other Changes that May Have Helped My Brevet

  1. Riding with the group. Last year, I was concerned that I not start my brevet too quickly because I had learned that doing so caused me to tire very quickly. As a result, I let the group get ahead of me within the first couple of miles. This year, I felt stronger so was willing to risk riding too fast to stay with the group. I am very glad that I did. It both made the ride a lot more fun and as well as easier due to the lower the wind resistance while riding with a group.
  2. Use of caffeine, but not ibuprofen. Last year, I used ibuprofen to moderate leg pain due to exercise both during training and during my brevet. This year, I did not feel the need for ibuprofen during training presumably due to my longer and gentler preparation and chose not to use it during the brevet. In the mean time, I ran across an article in the scientific journal "The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness" reporting that although aspirin provided no relief from exercise-induced muscle pain, caffeine did. I don't think of caffeine for pain relief, although its synergistic effect on headache pain is well known. Of course, Ibuprofen and aspirin are two different drugs, but what this article did do is inspire me to experiment with caffeine during the ride, in the form of two 20 oz bottles of Coca Cola at controls 3 and 4. I can't tell for sure if I got any pain relief, any effect was definitely not dramatic, but I am inspired to continue this experiment.

Final Thoughts

Although my last brevet was a success, there is a lot of room for improvement. The main improvement I am looking for is an increase in endurance so that I can ride longer brevets. I would also like to improve my speed to make it easier to ride with a group and to make it easier to finish a longer brevet within the time limit. Finally, I would like to be able to ride a brevet more comfortably. My symptoms during the week following this brevet has shown me how much this ride took out of me, among them sleep disturbance and chronically sore legs. I still have a way to go to reach the level of fitness I need to be a good brevet rider, but I think I am making progress.

For those new to this blog, each week I am posting an update of my training results; see my previous posts for explanations of my aerobic training program, MAF tests, and this graph.

The red arrows indicate the points where I switched to and then from the Grand Bois tires. When I put the tires on, I noted the large increase in speed and wondered if some or all of that was the tires. When I put the old tires back, I saw only a 0.1 mph decrease in speed on a day when I was also feeling tired, so if the tires increase my speed, I have not been able to demonstrate it here. That said, if it is not the tires, then my fitness as measured in a MAF test continues to improve even while preparing for a brevet. The last two MAF tests were ridden after the brevet. Note that they are not much slower than the previous tests. I have many other symptoms indicating I am tired from the brevet, but so far it is not impacting my MAF tests.


  1. This is great stuff. I love the amount of detail and analysis. I'm a young mechanical engineer just getting into cycling and should be getting a heart rate monitor for Xmas, so this is right up my alley. This is definitely something I will start tracking in Excel.

    1. Thank you so much for the comments, I really appreciate the positive feedback!