Today was to be the exquisite torture of a combined force/speed session.
The bike was set up in the garage, where the temperature was only just above freezing. In spite of this, there was a powerful electric fan set up just in front of the bike: he knew from experience that even wearing his lightest cycling clothes, he would be sweating hard before the end of the warm-up.
The fan however was never enough and he hung a hand-towel over the left side of the handlebars before starting the music. The time passed more quickly with music: there wasn’t much to look at on the garage wall. Hard rock was the best choice. Its driving, aggressive rhythm matching the mood needed to get through a hard session. Today was Black Sabbath.
Tony Iommi’s guitar filled the garage with the powerful opening chords of ‘Wheels of Confusion’ as he climbed on, clipped in the pedals, reset the bike computer and began the warm-up: ten minutes easy spinning at around 100 rpm and at a low resistance.
The first five minutes passed quickly. He mostly sat upright on the saddle, still thinking about the day’s work, spinning easily. On the five minute mark he increased the resistance a notch, put his hands on the hoods and began to feel the heat rising from his thighs and flowing through his body. After seven minutes he was sweating lightly and he reached forward to punch the button on the electric fan, feeling the immediate relief of cold air flowing over his face.
Osbourne was now singing ‘Tomorrow’s Dream’. He allowed his thoughts to drift for a moment.
“Well I’m leaving tomorrow at daybreak
Catch the fastest train around nine…”
Glancing at the bike computer he realized the ten minute warm-up was over! Quick, increase the resistance, lower the cadence! He moved the chain to the big ring, pushed the lever forward to maximum and immediately felt the strain of the magnetic brake forcing his legs to slow. Eyes on the bike computer, he tried to steady the cadence at 50 rpm. Christ this is hard, he thought silently to himself: how the hell am I going to keep this going for five minutes, let alone the full twenty? It was crazy to plan this session after everything I have done this week!
He started counting rhythmically as each pedal came round: one AND two AND three AND… all the way up to fifty when he restarted the count. This broke the five minutes down into one minute sections of fifty pedal strokes each, making it easier to bear. Concentrating on the counting while keeping a steady cadence and therefore a stable power output helped him push the pain into the background and pretty soon his legs settled into the rhythm.
He never allowed himself to think about how much remained until the halfway mark, counting only the work already done. This was as true for the short periods as for the longer ones: never think about reaching fifty strokes until you have passed twenty-five, never think about reaching five minutes until you have passed two and a half! He mostly kept his eyes closed as he worked and counted the strokes, opening them every minute or so to check the readings on the bike computer. He could tell by the sound of the wheel thrumming when he was a little off the pace, but he still liked to double check every now and again, as well as keeping an eye on his heart rate.
After counting five times to fifty the first interval was up and it was time to switch to high cadence, low force. He pulled the resistance lever back, dropped the chain to the small chain-ring and felt immediate relief as the tension went off. His legs spun effortlessly at 100 rpm. But this was not enough: the high-cadence work period called for 120 rpm. Painfully he coaxed his legs to spin faster. After a few seconds they responded and he was able to settle into the new, high-speed rhythm. Now he was counting much faster, from one to sixty for each thirty-second period, mentally ticking the thirty-second periods off in pairs until he’d passed the halfway point and could begin to think about the coming relief.
Towards the middle of the second of the four sets is always the worst time. He hadn’t even reached the half-way point and he felt exhausted. ‘I’m not going to make it’, he thought silently. ‘Dammit, what is this? Get a grip man’! He forced himself to concentrate on the bike computer and its dancing figures, keeping them as steady as he could, thinking about the pedal strokes, keep going man, pedal in circles, keep it smooth all the way around the stroke, down smoothly with one leg while pulling up with the other, pull back and up, push forward nice and smooth and then down again and keep it coming, keep counting, you’ll get there man, no let up, relief will come but not yet, keep going keep going, thirty FIVE, thirty SIX, thirty SEVEN…
And of course the end always did come, even though it was a relative “out of the frying pan, into the fire” type of end as he switched back and forth between the periods on force and those on cadence. The psychological lift of passing the midpoint and the growing certainty that he would after all be able to finish the set gave him a second wind and helped him through the final twenty minutes.
Still, the strain was really starting to tell as he entered the final set. The sweat was pouring off him and he was mopping his face with the hand-towel every few seconds to keep it out of his eyes. He had long since torn off his glasses and set them on a nearby ledge: it was too difficult to take them off and put them back on again every time he wiped his face. He had drunk almost a full bottle of water in quick snatches throughout the workout and still felt parched, the cold, dry air sucking the moisture out of his throat.
He told himself he’d sprint for the final minute and then immediately regretted it: where would he find the energy? “Summer races are won during winter training”. Where had he heard that? Come on man, go, go, go: it is almost over, 500 m left to the finish line, faster, faster, one two three four five six faster faster sixteen seventeen eighteen nineteen twenty…
As he burst through the imaginary finish line, heart pounding close to its maximum, he pulled the resistance back and sat up, grabbing the towel to his burning, dripping face and gasping for breath. For the first minute he could hardly turn the pedals, feeling only his heart trying to hammer its way out of his chest and an imperious need to breathe in oxygen. He forced himself to breathe slowly and deeply, exhaling hard.
After a couple of minutes he was able to pick up the cadence again to a steady 95 rpm of easy spinning to warm down. He drank thirstily, again and again, always in small sips to help his body absorb it quickly.
For the last few minutes he put his hands in the drops and cycled steadily, imagining himself tucked in behind a peloton on the open road. His heart rate was back to normal. All things told, his legs felt pretty good: heavy, but not painful. It had been a good work-out.
Before taking a shower, he checked the scales. He had lost two kilos in weight, entirely through sweat. He’d need to drink a lot more now to rehydrate.