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Project Sub-4: My journey to set a world individual pursuit record

I achieved a world record in 2018. Now can I ride 4km in under 4 minutes?

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My name is Ashton Lambie and I’m going to try to break a world record. My hands are sweaty just writing this, a reminder that I need to pack chalk to help my grip during the track efforts coming up.

Ever since I’ve started cycling, I’ve been drawn to the biggest possible goals, ones with a higher chance of failure than success. After I found my dad’s road bike in the garage when I was 15, I completed my first century later that year, because that was the longest distance around I could find. When I discovered randonneuring, I completed a 1,200km race my first year, because that was the longest distance event offered. And when I found track cycling through a grass track in Kansas, I dreamed of going to the Olympics.

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After failing to qualify a USA team pursuit squad for Tokyo, a cold, rainy ride from Glasgow to Derby was my immediate relief, followed by the chronic hum of disappointment throughout the past year. Yes, it’s tough that I did not go to Tokyo, but I’ve been silencing that hum by working toward another high-risk, high-reward goal in track cycling.

My cycling career started when I was 15, but my Individual Pursuit drive started after winning my first national title in 2017. At the Pan American Championships in 2018, I got my first world individual pursuit record with a time of 4:07.251. That record helped me earn a spot racing with the storied Huub-Wattbike trade team.

I’ve become obsessed with the data and requirements of setting records. After the end of our Olympic bid in December of 2019, I have been all-in to try to reset the 4km individual pursuit world record. The allure of rainbow stripes, gravel races, big adventures is still there, just on the back burner.

Riding The Mid South in March, 2020. Photo: Brad Kaminski | VeloNews.com

I managed a silver medal behind my arch-nemesis (just kidding, we’re good pals!), Fillipo Ganna, at the 2020 world championships in Berlin, where I rode a qualifying time of 4:03.640. In Berlin, Ganna set the world record even lower at a 4:01.934, at an altitude 8,000 feet lower than the previous world record I had set in Bolivia the year before.

I had been doing hard, traditional track training, working on with my strength coach, Chris Dellesaga of Athletic Strength Institute, and with my cycling coach, Ben Sharp, which had worked well enough. But I still needed to be better. Then the pandemic hit, races were cancelled, and opportunities to reclaim the record were pushed out of sight.

This was a prime opportunity to try something new. The individual pursuit is a steady state effort. It’s different from a purely aerobic time trial, it’s too long to be a sprint, and it’s not the same over/under sort of effort as a team pursuit. After a few chats with Chris, and reading way too much about mile running, we developed a training plan based around current Middle Distance Running (MDR) programs, as well as Chris’ extensive knowledge about energy systems and biomechanics.

The MDR program focuses on intensity, specificity, and targeting different energy systems instead of the traditional concept of training zones. As sad as it makes me, mile runners don’t run marathons on the weekends; so I wouldn’t be doing my normal 4- to 6-hour rides on the weekends either. It was gym three times a week, intervals four times a week, and an endurance ride on Saturday. Now we just had to see if it worked.

The Hong Kong Nation’s Cup would be my first proof of concept. This would turn out to be the A-level event and a proving ground for the MDR program I’d been implementing. Our 52-hour travel day and slow track conditions put a new record out of reach, so I settled on executing and improving what I could on the day.

I was stoked to ride a 4:05, paired with my first individual Nation’s Cup gold medal. Furthermore, the race data showed that the training changes I’d made with the Athletic Strength Institute were working! It was now time to build on this proof of concept training and draft a full middle distance style plan tailored exclusively to retaking the world record in August.

All this led me to a 1992 Starcraft Leisurestar RV in Montana… which is where I will pick up the story in my next column.