How do you train for gravel? I'm finding out....

Groad Trip: Gravel training vs WorldTour training

After 10 years of training for top-level road racing, I'm now charting a new course with my coach Scott Nydam.

“Scott, I’m going to need you now more than ever.” Those are the words I said as I picked up his call.

The day VeloNews broke the story of my career transition was in November, heart of the off-season. Scott Nydam, my coach since 2013, has been a constant figure in my pro career but every off-season we turn our attention to our respective families and other obligations for 8 weeks with the promise to catch up once I’m slightly fit and ready to handle what he’s able to prescribe. Scott had known I was contemplating this move but we’d fallen into our off-season break while I was still fleshing out the details. He’d read the news and immediately called me.

In the WorldTour, the training is paramount and every day is important. However, the racing is what really brings you to a new level. There is nothing quite like the Tour Down Under in January to whip your butt into shape and really give you the form bump. You simply cannot go that deep in training alone vs getting pushed constantly out of your comfort zone by the world’s best. In fact, much of the most important training in the WorldTour really does happen in the early season.

Often, come spring time, you are constantly stage racing and recovering in-between, with some sharpening thrown in for good measure if you do happen to get your feet back under you before the next one! I remember pre-Tour of California was always a cherished time for Scott and I because I could come home from Europe a few weeks early, do a proper training block, and really focus on all the details.

An exhausted Peter Stetina on the Powder Mountain finish. Photo: Casey B. Gibson

Now that I’m a “pro graveleur” I don’t have stage races to bank on for that form bump. My training is going to have to somehow pick up that slack. And that’s what I told Scott. Honestly I don’t know how I can train harder than I did before. We’ve been working together long enough that we have learned what works well. We know how to get me fit as a fiddle and we don’t want to flip the script.

Part of what works is a bit unconventional. Scott is sometimes more of a friend than a coach. Often we will wax philosophic for half an hour on something unrelated to bikes, and when I’m about to hang up, I realize I still don’t have tomorrow’s workout!

He helps me to make sure my head is in the right place and will prescribe specific rest day activities (for example he told me to help my wife paint the guest room last month!) to ensure I really give myself a break. I trust him fully and need his guidance to keep me at my best, mentally and physically. I asked him to join me on this new adventure and I think he’s excited to learn with me as we go.

One big change is that I’m not focusing on the multi-day blocks as much anymore. Three days in a row of 4- to 5-hour rides aren’t as important because I’m generally not preparing for stage races and the necessary day to day recovery. Most races on my calendar are one day and really long. There are a lot more long rides of 5-7 hours, interspersed with more rest days.

Also, I’m not so concerned about being a skinny flyweight mountain goat now. These gravel races are about the grind, that all-day power, putting the pedal to the metal, and keeping it there. I’m attempting to put on some muscle and focusing on more flatland efforts vs pure mountain intervals. I’m naturally lean, built like a pure climber, so the muscle mass has been difficult.

Another challenging element is the copious amount of craft beer on hand at all gravel events! It’s hard for this beer geek to say no. I’m hoping that Beer Watts are a real thing, and that they will come in handy during hour 9 of Dirty Kanza.

The biggest change by far though, as I mentioned in a previous post, is juggling all the other aspects of being a privateer. I’m doing intervals early before showing up to a media event or en-route to one if it’s local. The promotional activities seem to be slowing down now and I am relieved that I can focus a bit more on the bike itself. The big spring objectives are near, The Mid South is the first big dog for me and it’s a short three weeks away.

The best part of this all though: Just enjoying the bike. There have been a lot more adventure rides and soul rides. I’ve been getting out for an epic loop and just jamming when the mood strikes; pure flow riding. This is the ethos of gravel, just getting out there on a personal odyssey. Now, I get to call adventure rides a legitimate part of my training!


Editor’s note from Ben Delaney: After reading Pete’s column, I had to give Scott Nydam a call to hear his side of the story. Below are excerpts of that conversation.

VeloNews: What basic tools and indicators do you use with Pete? Are you a TrainingPeaks and TSS guy, or more a rider feedback and feel coach?
Scott Nydam: You know, we could do 80 percent of what we do with WhatsApp. TrainingPeaks is a great journal. But Pete’s comments are as valuable as anything else as far as power files. Algorithms do not apply to every individual similarly. Levi [Leipheimer] taught me that all the data are just reference points. Your power meter is a reference point. Your heart rate is a reference point. The time it took you to get from the base of your local climb to the top, that’s a reference point. The number one thing is your perceived exertion.

TSS and all that, I take very lightly. Pete, the thing is, he lives by it.

VN: How do you now determine fitness targets for Pete?
SN: It’s a little bit gunslinger. I’m shooting from the hip. I don’t think to set a mark and have him fall short will be productive. I think that’s what road cycling is in general. It sets this bar, and anything but meeting that is a failure, and that’s just bullshit.

The way I see it, it’s just about creating adaptation. You are either going forward, or you are going backward. We are working with energetic systems. You have to stimulate them in the workout, you go to bed, you recover, and you progress.

VN: But you have to track some metrics. What do you look at? And how do you test Pete?
SN: The metrics are all a bit of the tapestry. I look at his numbers, keeping tabs on perceived exertion and response, and I will line out his next 12 days of training. His critical power is where it was last year, for his anaerobic capacity and his VO2.

But here’s the thing: you don’t need to put both feet across the threshold in order to increase the adaptations. Every practice is not a race. There is no real need to know those absolute limits until the race. It’s just, are we going forward with the training, or are we going backward?

There are three to four times a year where I will try to break Pete. Rather then getting his feedback, I will try to see where he is at.