How to fine-tune your engine for early-season racing

By James Herrera
If there are hills in your race, you better make sure you've got hills in your training!Spring is just around the corner and your rides are getting longer and stronger. You were true to your sport this winter. You cross-trained with weights, cross-country skied, ran, piled on the base miles, and did the occasional group ride just to blow out the pipes now and again. Your climbing legs and sprint are working their way back to form.

But now, it's six weeks to game day, and you're getting itchy to slap on the race wheels, pin on the number, and open up the throttle. It's what you do between now and that first starting gun that fine tunes your engine and determines what you’re going to have under the hood when its “GO time.”
Most cycling aficionados know the stock routine: cross train in the winter to maintain fitness, ride long, slow distance around the New Year, hit your long, steady tempo to build leg strength and aerobic capacity, then gain top-end horsepower by doing race specific intervals and drills. If it were that easy, we’d all have it down by now…no first race blow-ups on lap one of your criterium, ten minutes into your time trial, or fizzling faster than a Roman candle in your sprint.
The truth of the matter is, race-specific preparation is hard work, incredibly hard work! Most athletes will dip their toe in the water when it comes to race prep, but only the true champions know how to gut it out.
Race preparation is both physical and mental. You must develop the physiological adaptations that increase your muscular and aerobic capacities to peak form, but also attain the mental preparedness to make sound technical and tactical decisions. Most importantly, your mind-body connection is honed with race-specific training that enables you to suffer, to ignore the pain when your lungs are searing and legs are burning, to dig deep inside and finish with the satisfaction of knowing you truly left it all out on the course. That kind of gratification is hard won, but absolutely priceless.
High intensity, race prep intervals come in many shapes and sizes based on the time and course demands of your event. For starters, remember the simple training principle of specificity: if it's going to happen in your race, you’d better make certain it happens in training. This goes for the type, terrain, and length of the critical demands of your racing — repeated surges, sprinting, time trialing, hills, flats, short bursts, and long, diesel-type efforts. If you’re exclusively racing tight criterium courses, you’ll need to develop short acceleratory power and a strong sprint. For longer circuits, the ability to lay down a long surge of power is critical for attacks and bridging. Time trial specialists are special gluttons for punishment, high-powered diesels that can tightwalk a pace that borders on spontaneous combustion.
Whatever your poison, boost your horsepower with these race-specific efforts. The price of glory is a little bit of pain. 
Sprint Finishes: Do a variety of time and/or distance sprints, 10-20 seconds, to fine tune your jump and learn where you’re finishing kick is most optimal. Include uphill sprints for increased power and downhill for improved leg speed. Spice up a general two-hour aerobic ride with a 10-on-the-10 following a 30-minute warm up. That’s a 10-second sprint every 10 minutes. Also try sprints in a set, 5 x 10 seconds with 5 minutes easy spinning between efforts.
Criterium: The surge and recover demands of crit racing necessitate similar intervals. Experiment with times of 20-60 seconds at full tilt with a 1:2 work-to-rest ratio (i.e. 20 seconds on, 40 seconds off or 60 seconds on, 2 minutes off), then improve to 1:1 work-to-rest as you gain fitness (30 on, 60 off; 45 on, 90 off). When resting, take it all the way down to full recovery, easy spinning. The next step is pushing over that threshold on the attack, but only settling to your tempo pace in between efforts. This is much more of a true race simulation effort that will improve your pain tolerance and fitness.
Hill Courses: Based on the grade, length, and number of hills your event covers, default to specificity. If you’re dealing with many short and steeps, you need the horses to power up, over and over again. Find a course with multiple, frequent hills. If routes are limited, going up and down the same hill is not quite as scenic, but still does the job. Start strong at the bottom, and gradually accelerate your pace as you near the top. Recover on the descents.
For climbs that never end, you need long, sustainable power that’ll keep you in the fight. Find climbs of 20-40 minutes and begin at your tempo pace. Five minutes in, take it to your threshold and hold on to the top. Get your breathing short, quick, and rhythmic, synchronized with your pedal strokes. For climbs of 45 minutes or greater, ride longer at tempo before building to threshold pace.
Time Trials: Course length and your goal time dictate interval duration. For a 30-minute goal TT, try an interval progression of 5 x 5-6 minutes, 4 x 7-8min, 3 x 10-12min, 2 x 15-18min, 1 x 25-30min, moving through the progression as your fitness improves. Perform all intervals aside from your final 1 x 25-30min at slightly faster than goal pace. For your final 1 x 30 test, aim for as close to your goal pace as possible.
Race Openers: The day before your event, and perhaps the day of as the completion of a good warm-up routine, perform some short, high-intensity efforts to really fine-tune the engine. Try 3-5 x 20-60 seconds at full tilt with a 1:5 work to rest ratio. That’s 5 times the recovery as the length of your effort.