Speed and distance: the Andy Wilkinson paradox

I did my first turbo session of 2012 today. To be more accurate, it might be my first session of indoor sensory deprivation torture since January 2011: I can’t say I took up cycling to ride indoors. I can’t go out on Tuesdays during the day as my youngest son is at home with me, but the opportunity is there for indoor training whilst he is having a nap. Given that I don’t race, the wisdom of turbo training is a paradoxical one. The received wisdom of long distance preparation is slowly building a base; gradually increasing the duration if rides to match the distances encountered in competition. As with marathon training, there is an upper limit: it is probably not a good idea to prepare for PBP by gradually increasing training distances to 1200 km: a diet of long day training rides and events of up to 600 km is the sort of regimen suggested by Doughty (or Burke and Pavelka).

So where might shorter, more intense rides, fit into, or replace some of this longer duration riding? There is a myth that long distance record breakers prepare in the old-school manner of amassing distance. This myth is not one ascribed to by Andy Wilkinson, one of the most successful long-distance cyclist of them all. Wilkinson holds the 24-hour record of 541.09 miles (870.799 km) at the age of 47, beating his own previous record of 525.07 miles (845.018 km), set in 1997 (see Irwin and Bull, 2011):

The Port Sunlight Wheeler, a doyen of the time-trialling scene for the last twenty years, had long thought it possible to improve his previous standard.

So how did Wilkinson prepare for it? “You can’t,” he laughed. “I don’t do epic 400-mile rides. All my racing prior to that was to gain form; I’d done some gym work on core fitness and stability over the winter. I trained by myself, fast rides rather than long.”

Of course, Wilkinson does put in the miles, and many stories circulate about him riding to and from events, a tradition much less common in the UK than it used to be, but clearly it is quality, not quantity, that is key.

Now, I am not trying to beat any speed records, but time is the enemy of the long-distance cyclist, and above 400 km one has to ride quite a bit faster than the minimum speed (15 km/h or thereabouts) in order to have time for rest, sleep and contingencies. If you ride at an average speed of 20 km/h over a distance of 600 km/h you would complete your ride in 30 hours (without stopping), leaving a further 10 hours for stoppages. That could be an 8 hour sleep, which could come in handy.

So, for me, although I can ride at well over 20 km/h, it is not a pace I can sustain over distance. My longest completed audax (pre-children) or 400 km took me about 24 hours (if I remember correctly) giving me an average speed of about 16 km/h. I hardly stopped during this ride, so I guess my average riding speed would have been in the region of 18 km/h. At that speed you might get 6-7 hours off the bike to eat, deal with mechanicals and sleep on a 600: that, for me looks pretty unmanageable.

Hence the speed training: if I can get my comfortable average speed just a bit higher (and intervals seem to be the key), then I will be much more comfortable and confident with the extra distance. 400 km without sleep was quite enough! Of course, I do think that much of this is psychological. Getting on the turbo today felt like a serious step towards my goals, and helped offset the disappointment of failing to start my last event.

Also, I shall be visualising Andy Wilkinson’s mental strength, just watch this extraordinary video of his record ride made by Damon Peacock, especially the contrast between his demeanour at beginning and end (he was almost walking again in time for the presentation, however, see this interview post ride). ‘Good effort’ indeed!


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