Beyond Limits: A new generation of paced training (video)

We look at a new training technique at Tejay van Garderen's Andorran training camp with Allen Lim, Ph.D.

Editor’s note: Beyond Limits is a new VeloNews Voices project featuring Allen Lim, PhD, about the exploration of human performance and human possibility. This project is made possible by sponsorship from Skratch Labs and Saris.

Mile after mile, Tejay van Garderen’s training partner drove on, never once backing off the pace. Up soaring climbs in Andorra, his legs spun away relentlessly as he shifted through the gears. Behind, van Garderen, one of the world’s top climbers, pushed himself to stay in the rider’s draft. Van Garderen was nearing his limit. It was a perfect training session.

The tireless training partner was former U.S. cyclocross national champion Tim Johnson. He rode an electric bicycle.

Van Garderen and his coach, Dr. Allen Lim, decided to use an electric bicycle as a pacing vehicle prior to this year’s Amgen Tour of California, where van Garderen battled for the victory. Why use an e-bike instead of the traditional motor scooter?

“My inspiration came from Terminator 2,” Lim said with a smile. “There is that scene where the mother talks about, ‘What if there was a father who was always there, who never gets tired?’ And I thought, what if we had a training partner who never got tired? That is what a good rider like Tim is on an e-bike.”

New-school motorpacing

Motorpacing behind a scooter is a decades-old technique in pro training, used to build leg speed and endurance when riding on the flats and rolling hills. But a motorized scooter doesn’t work well in the mountains for a few reasons. Besides being loud and foul smelling, a scooter doesn’t handle modulations in climbing pitch the way a cyclist does.

On a Cannondale e-bike, Tim Johnson leads Tejay van Garderen and Simon Clarke of EF Education First up a steep training climb in Andorra. | Photo: Greg Erwin

Lim and van Garderen wanted to replicate the effect that Team Ineos’s train of riders has in the mountains, where high speeds whip the riders behind through corners and tight bends.

After using the e-bike before the Tour of California, van Garderen and Lim set up a three-day camp in the tiny but very steep country of Andorra, where each day they would climb more than 10,000 feet.

The targets were sustained work in the range of 5-6 Watts/kilogram, with surges over 7 W/kg, with an average power output of 250-260 Watts for the five-hour days.

Johnson rode a Cannondale Synapse NEO, which has four levels of electric boost. He kept it on the second-lowest ‘Tour’ mode, as that provided extra wattage but still required him to pedal hard, allowing him to ride at or just a hair above what van Garderen could produce if he was riding solo.

Johnson, van Garderen and Clarke did three 10,000ft+ days in Andorra. | Photo: Greg Erwin

Being on a quiet electric bike allowed Johnson to listen to van Garderen’s breathing, and keeping it on sport mode meant he wouldn’t rocket away unintentionally, but could just keep the tempo high indefinitely, forcing van Garderen to ride as if he was racing, climb after climb. He was the perfect training partner.

Specificity is the key

Van Garderen’s EF teammate, Mike Woods, joined for two days of the high-mountain camp, and found his first experience training behind an e-bike to be “fantastic.”

“The fact that we had Tim made a huge difference because he has such a good sense of pace, and knows what it’s like to race at our level, and how climbs are going to be raced,” Woods said. “It gave us a great feel for race pace climbing outside a race.”

“You want to train as specifically as possible for what you do,” Woods said. “This was like Sky [Team Ineos] was on the front and [Vasil] Kiriyenka was drilling it. Coming out of a switchback and having to go a bit harder, but not dying like you would riding behind a motor.”

Better than intervals

It’s a common question that surrounds motor-pacing: Why not just ride to a target power by yourself?

“There are lots of reasons,” Woods said. “One, it’s way easier to follow than just do an interval. And some of it is pride. When you have someone else watching and holding you accountable, you don’t want to fail.”

Allen Lim, PhD, is coaching van Garderen this year. The pair collaborate on training plans and training camps. | Photo: Greg Erwin

In addition to mimicking the physiological demands of racing, Lim said, pacing behind an e-bike mimicks some of the psychological effects that riders see during a race.

“Group dynamics provide that competitive benchmark,” Lim said.

For more Beyond Limits, visit the Beyond Limits hub

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