To the uninitiated, training for track cycling may seem to comprise of nothing more than repeated laps of the velodrome. That could not be further from reality. Track cycling offers a whole host of different disciplines, each with their own training methods. We can nonetheless divide them into two main categories: sprint events such as the individual sprint, the 200 metres and the Keirin; and endurance events such as the pursuit and elimination and points races. Training techniques for the two vary just as much as those employed by 100-metre sprinters and marathon runners in athletics.
Whether training for speed or endurance, however, cyclists can never escape a common enemy: lactic acid. The latter is a toxin produced as a result of physical effort, which prevents muscles from oxygenating. What’s more, it takes a different form depending on whether it is generated quickly and violently, or more gradually over time.
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As François Pervis points out, “most track cyclists who specialise in endurance racing come from the road”. These road cyclists – or routiers, as the French call them – make the transition from DN1 racing (Ed: France’s breeding ground for road pros) or are already professional riders. There are plenty of cyclists who straddle the disciplines, and it is not uncommon to see individuals shine equally on the asphalt of the road and the boards of the velodrome (Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish, Filippo Ganna and Frenchman Benjamin Thomas, to name but four).
It tends to be the bigger road riders, and above all the time trial specialists, who excel on the track. “To keep in shape when the road season is over, they often spend their winters on the track,” observes Pervis. Which is not to say that the transition is always an easy one.
“Even if these riders have all the intrinsic qualities required for the track, they still have to train on bikes they are not used to,” continues the seven-time world champion. “It takes a lot of time to get used to the track bike and its unique characteristics: fixed-gear, no brakes, and so on.”
Similarly, some of the so-called endurance disciplines require very specific training drills – the changeovers between riders in the team pursuit, for example. The name of the game is simple enough: practice makes perfect! This repetitive nature, of course, also characterises the training employed for sprint events, albeit in a very different way.
Erasing muscle memory
As a flat-out speed specialist – and former world champion in the kilometre, the keirin and the sprint – François Pervis understands the intricacies of training for these disciplines better than anyone. “You have to develop the key facets of strength, power, speed and explosiveness," he says.
And as if that wasn’t enough, the man from the Mayenne department adds one final, savage ingredient: overspeed. “It’s the cadence of pedalling,” he explains, “at very high speeds. You have to pedal as fast as possible while in the slipstream of a motorbike. The idea is that you override the memory of the muscle, so that it forgets its own physical limits.” In other words, a truly unique technique aimed at helping the athlete to truly maximise his or her capabilities. Or, as Pervis puts it, to “raise the roof of the house”.
It is a metaphor that needs no explanation. Nevertheless, the house in question is not built overnight and it takes time and dedication to lay the foundations. François Pervis talks us through a typical training week from when he was a professional. If any of you are allergic to effort, you may wish to look away now.
“We start with weight training on Monday morning. Then track training in the afternoon. On Tuesday, an hour of road training to shake the cobwebs off in the morning, then back on the track in the afternoon. Next, more weights and a big road ride (2h30) on Wednesday. Then on Thursday, it's an hour of road training in the morning and more track in the afternoon. The next day, weights and track and lastly, on Saturday, we’re out on the road again.” In other words, a truly hellish schedule. To have a hope of winning on the track, it is not just your muscles that need to be made of steel, but your work ethic and mentality too.
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