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The Coach(ed) Corner: Using power meters to train for bicycle racing

By Jason Sumner

Levi — broken by Brasstown? Or just checking the power data?

Photo: Jason Sumner

Greetings. There’s been a lot going on these last two weeks, so I’m going to skip the snappy lead and get to it. Let’s start with some race talk.

I managed to get myself to the East Coast at the end of April for the sixth running of the Tour de Georgia. As you all know by now, it was a pretty exciting race, marked by the unexpected emergence of Belarusian Kanstantsin Sivtsov.

I still don’t know how to say the guy’s name, but even before the kid stormed up the Brasstown climb, High Road general manager Bob Stapleton was singing his praises. Clearly Stapleton and company have an eye for young talent – read: Gerdemann, Cavendish, Greipel, Ciolek and now Sivtsov. Watch out for these guys come Tour de France time. Sez here they will win at least two stages before the final yellow jersey is passed out.

But enough about the pros. Running concurrently to the Tour de Georgia was a less heralded – but just as hotly contested — event dubbed the Tour de Bachelor. The quick and dirty back story is that a couple of my good bike riding friends — Boulder’s Kirk Peterson and Atlanta bike shop owner Will Holt — are taking the big walk down the aisle later in the summer. But instead of blowing it out in Vegas beforehand, they opted to rent a hilltop cabin in Helen, Georgia.

For those who’ve never been, Helen is one of the kitschy tourist towns that’s supposed to look and feel like old Europe — Germany in this case. Unfortunately, no matter how quaint and rustic you make a Huddle House, it’s still a Huddle House. But whatever, some people dig that stuff. We were there to ride bikes and drink a few beers.

Turns out Helen is an ideal launching pad for some of the best road riding in all of Georgia. During our two-day, non-UCI-sanctioned omnium, we ground our way up and over a handful of the climbs that are Tour de Georgia hallmarks — the gaps of Jack’s, Hog Pen, and Unicoi, and the menacing Brasstown Bald.

The only bummer on Brasstown — besides the 12 percent average grade and 25 percent walls — was that we couldn’t go all the way to the top because of some BS about the final kilometer being a service road and users needing a special use permit. Anyway, even without that final kilometer, it was a pretty brutal ride up to the parking lot.

Sevilla looking finished at the Brasstown finish line

Sevilla looking finished at the Brasstown finish line

Photo: Jason Sumner


I must admit, though, that coming from Boulder and having all that extra Georgia oxygen to suck in made a huge difference. No doubt the legs were on fire, but the lungs held up pretty well. That got me thinking about the benefits of training at sea level, and indeed there are some.

“The big difference at sea level is the amount of oxygen getting to your muscles,” explained my coach, Neal Henderson. “This means your VO2 max is raised and your power at every level — VO2 max, threshold, etc. — all go up by about 10 percent if you’re coming from a place like Boulder.”

What’s really interesting, though, is how much more work you can do. Henderson explained that one’s work-to-rest ratio goes way up, and you are able to recover much faster.

“Say your standard interval is a minute on and a minute off,” he said. “Well you couldn’t produce as much power here at elevation as you could at sea level. If you tried to, you would only be able to do about half the number of intervals.”

That’s why it’s not uncommon for some of the top Boulder-based pros to spend time training with supplemental oxygen, which allows them to achieve a higher muscular effort, thus increasing the amount of training stress.

“You normally might be able to do 30 seconds on, 30 off,” Henderson said. “Whereas with oxygen you could go 40-20. That means if you do 10 repeats you get a minute 40 more effort in same amount of time. That’s a considerable difference.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m probably not going to run out and buy an oxygen tank and mask, but for me it’s definitely interesting to re-consider the heretofore dreaded fitness-losing trip to sea level. And for whatever it’s worth, the Boulderites managed to dispatch some very fit Georgia low-landers at the Tour de Bachelor. It definitely was the oxygen.

Next round of racing came last Saturday in nearby Golden, Colorado. The event was the Lookout Mountain Hillclimb, a mass start 4.5-mile ball buster that gained 1220 feet. No great glory achieved here, but I will give props to the aforementioned groom-to-be Kirk Peterson and myself for racing the cat. 4s, bombing back down the hill, and taking on the 35+ cat. 4s. I think we had about two minutes from the end of the descent to the start of race No. 2.

My times for both climbs hovered around 22 minutes — just under the first, just over the second. Placings were 26th and 23rd. Pro men’s winner Stefano Barberi posted an 18:08. The cat. 4 winning time was a 19:08. Webcor’s Amy Dombroski was top women with a 22:02.

The most interesting take away for me was that proper warm up really, positively, absolutely equals feeling better during a race. Using the standard Borg Scale of Perceived of Exertion (1 equals watching TV and eating bon bons, 10 equals dead), the first race was about a nine, while the second was more like a seven. If only the registration — and bathroom — lines hadn’t been so darn long that morning …

Just like the pros

Last order of business this week is the new toy that came in the mail the other day. Thanks to the fine folks at CycleOps — and in the immortal words of C+C Music Factory — I’ve got the Power. Actually it’s a PowerTap SL 2.4 hub and display monitor, and I’ve just barely scratched the surface on what it does so we’ll delve into that much more in later columns.

For now I’ll leave it at this: After conducting a very unscientific survey among riders and staff at the Tour de Georgia, it’s pretty clear power measuring device use for training — and racing — is becoming commonplace in the pro peloton.

Slipstream bikes all have these little yellow attachments ...

Slipstream bikes all have these little yellow attachments …

Photo: Jason Sumner

“This is the first year I’ve used one all the time during races,” Astana’s Levi Leipheimer told me. “It’s still mostly just a reference tool, a way to guide myself on how I feel. I try not to look at it too much during races, but I definitely glance from time to time. I mean hey, with the bikes being so light now, you might as well add something, right?”

Can’t argue with that.

No questions this week. Everybody must be busy training and racing. If you would like to ask Coach Henderson a question, please send e-mail to CoachNealQandA@gmail.com.

Editor’s Note: Jason Sumner is a 37-year-old, 168-pound freelance writer and Cat. 4 bike racer who is working with a cycling coach – and now training with power – for the first time in his life. Sumner underwent a full battery of lab tests at the beginning of the season, producing a 250-watt lactate threshold, a 3.2 watts per kilogram score and a VO2 max of 51.5. His 2008 goals include improving on his usual mid-pack finishes, not getting dropped on the weekend group rides, and learning something along the way. He’ll be documenting his experiences for VeloNews.com is this twice-monthly column.

Neal Henderson is sports science manager at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine and a well-regarded elite-level coach. Henderson’s clients include Slipstream-Chipotle’s Taylor Phinney, Jelly Belly’s Scott Tietzel and Trish Downing, a nationally ranked paraplegic athlete. Henderson is also the winter triathlon coach for the U.S. national triathlon team, and was recently named USA Cycling National Development Coach of the Year. This summer he’s heading out on the road with Phinney, helping the young phenom get ready for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Henderson is working with Jason Sumner on a pro bono basis.

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