How I Dramatically Improved My Fondo Performance in Just a Year

In September 2016 I rode my first Whistler GranFondo. I’d only participated in one other fondo before this, the Fraser Valley, in July; in that event, I had struggled in the last 30km or so. The Valley is a long ride, over 160km, much further than I’d ridden before. While Whistler was 40km shorter, I had the Squamish to Whistler ascent to deal with, an unknown quantity since I had never cycled it before.

I finished in 4:33, which according to my coach was pretty good for the first time out. While I found the climbs after Squamish easier than I’d feared, I bonked with about 20km to go. There were three main reasons for this:

  1. Poor nutrition. I hadn’t learned how to pace my drinking, but especially my solids and gels. I simply didn’t eat enough, forgetting what I’d learned from the Fraser Valley ride [link to blog post], and figuring I felt pretty good through the first couple of hours. As they say, if you start feeling hungry, it’s too late.
  2. Not enough training. I had been doing just a ride or two a week, and I’d had a total of three weeks off in the summer, during which time I had not been on a bike much. It isn’t necessary to train as hard as I have this year—see below—but I just wasn’t in the condition required to do as well as I might have.
  3. Riding solo. Even if you’re not part of a team, you can find a group with an appropriate pace that will save you a lot of effort. In 2016 I just wasn’t confident or experienced enough to do it.

I was still pretty happy with my effort. But I started thinking about 2017, and what I could do to get faster. The first problem would be relatively easy to solve; #2 and #3 required some work.

A few weeks after Whistler, my coach Paul Moffat took his Velosophy group to Bowen Island for an end-of-season ride. I’d been with Paul since the spring, but something finally settled into place for me on the island climbs. Squamish to Whistler had gone fairly well, but this reinforced it: I’d finally started to overcome the psychological hurdle of hill climbs; and I was getting stronger.

Finally (almost) keeping up with Eric Purtzki. Photo: Paul Moffat

But where could I go from there? The season was over.

I’d purchased a Wahoo KICKR earlier in the year, mostly to do some FTP tests. So I set up the small room at the entrance to my place as a cycle room/pain cave. I bought an industrial-strength fan along with a tool chest and wheel storage hooks, and I was ready to go for the winter.

I’ve written previously about my indoor training experience: see A Winter of Indoor Cycle Training. I worked through a few of the TrainerRoad programs: Sweet Spot Base Mid-Volume I and II, and Sustained Power Build Mid-Volume. I was interrupted for a few weeks by a slight Achilles tendon issue, but overall put in about 100 hours from November to February. This was more work than I’d done outdoors during the summer season, and I was feeling some gains and also improvements in technique. Unlike some, I don’t mind the monotony of indoor training rides. I mostly focused on the TrainerRoad coaching text, and listened to podcasts during some of the longer sessions. As spring approached, I tried a couple of Zwift races and enjoyed them.

In February, the Velosophy group was invited by the Pender/Dopo Bici club to participate in their training rides and the subsequent GranFondo in Malibu. I was excited about this; I had started to consider doing a cycle trip like Haute Route or Trek Travel; but this was closer, cheaper … and right now; I was on a flight to California within a couple of weeks.

The indoor training paid off: although I’d only had one outdoor ride to that point in 2017 and felt a bit shaky being back outdoors—you have to steer when you ride?—there’s no way I could have kept up without the training I’d done over the winter. We did a few training rides during the week before the fondo; the area is amazing for cycling, with great climbs and twisting descents. The fondo itself went fairly well, though it was only my third such event; and after twice working in small groups to get back to the lead peloton, I was finally dropped for good about 85km in.

Malibu training ride. Photo: TLBVelo Photography

It was hard to come back from bright, summery California and start spring training in the cold and rain. But just a week after Malibu, during the first Velosophy ride of the season around Richmond, it was obvious that I’d made significant progress. It was the same ride we’d started with a year previously, which had been my first real outing with a group and a coach. (I had trained with Team OvCare for the Ride to Conquer Cancer the year before, but that was very casual, with no drafting allowed.) In areas where I’d struggled to keep up a year prior, I found the level of effort to be moderate or low; and noticed that a couple of the new members were struggling as I had in 2016. The flip side of Rule #10 is that it gets easier at the same speed.

I’d met a few of the Pender riders in California, of course, and joined the club for some extra training. I wanted to ride more than a couple of days a week; and although I enjoy going out solo, I was sometimes missing the social aspect and wanted to develop better group riding skills. Starting in early May, I attended the weekly Thursday night rides coached by Laura Brown. I rode rain or shine, and on June 15 it was pretty wet; I left my Cervélo R5 at home and put fenders on my Opus Allegro, and for the first time met Assaf Yogev, the Pender men’s team coach.

This led on to a few things. I decided to try racing, and the next week began Escape Velocity’s “Learn to Race” course; I got my UCI license. I started attending the Pender team skills clinics; unfortunately, I had a crash in mid-July and threw my shoulder out. This delayed my first attempt at racing, though I still rode the Valley Fondo the same week and it was my best fondo to date, 53 minutes faster than 2016. I switched over to Assaf for coaching, and going forward he scheduled six sessions a week for me in TrainingPeaks. These varied from intense hill repeats to skills sessions and recovery rides. I had no troubles handling the work, even though it was far beyond anything I’d done before. It was a big time commitment, but I really enjoyed all of it.

In August I participated in the Cypress Challenge, and took eleven minutes off my 2016 time. I also rode the last few World Tuesday Night Championship criteriums of the year. I started in Cat 4 at the suggestion of Bill Semrau, the very supportive Pender team captain, from whom I learned a lot in just a few races (his wife Tammy L. Brimner does excellent cycling and other photography, including a couple of the photos in this post). I generally did pretty well, not placing, but handling the pace and learning strategy and technique.

WTNC—that’s me in Pender red. Photo: TLBVelo Photography

And then it was September. I’d put in over 300 hours and about 8,500km of work by this point in the year, 6,000km more than I had leading up to the 2016 event. I did one last “hill smash” on Belmont out near Spanish Banks on the Tuesday before the event, then tapered.

I was given the choice to ride with the lead group, or support the mixed team. I agonized over this: I knew I could improve on last year’s time, perhaps dramatically; but the lead group was going to finish in about 3:30, an hour faster than I did in 2016. I take a while to warm up, and feared being dropped on Taylor Way and riding without any Pender crew. Just a few minutes before the start, I decided to go with the mixed team, which was aiming for four hours.

It turned out that Taylor Way was the biggest challenge of the ride for me; I registered my highest heart rate there. After we spread out some, the team came back together on the Upper Levels. It started raining earlier than I had expected, and it was a pretty wet ride, though we were working hard enough that the cold didn’t register until we stopped in Whistler.

We worked well together and maintained a good pace. We had one flat, and lost two riders to that. By the last 20km or so, it was just Bill, myself, and two of the Pender women. Unfortunately, we didn’t win in the mixed team category—but we were not far behind. Next year!

I finished in 3:50:29 (chip time), 43 minutes faster than 2016. I placed 14th of 330 in my age group, 96th percentile; and overall 191st of 2,937 riders, 93rd percentile. I sacrificed some time to work for the team, but I don’t regret it at all. The overall pacing was excellent, and riding in a group was key; I never felt I was working particularly hard. I ate several bars and one gel; and drank about two and a half bidons of Roctane Gu and Vega electrolyte hydrator, largely through the first two-thirds of the race. That worked well for me.

Nutrition; dedicated training; and group riding skills got me to the finish about 16% faster. It’s worth noting that I reduced my alcohol consumption to near zero, and I suspect this was a component of my success. See “Is Alcohol the Reason You’re Not Getting Faster?” on the TrainerRoad blog.

I am pretty confident that in 2018 I can take another ten to twenty minutes off my time, and place near the top in my age group; and hopefully play a part in a Pender team victory. I’m largely back indoors on my KICKR now, and will be meeting my coach soon to plan for the 2018 season.

Bring it on.

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