How To Make It To A-Grade

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photo by Veeral Patel

A couple weeks ago a reader asked a question that every aspiring bike racer wonders at some point:  “How do I make the leap to A-Grade?”

Q: I’m currently a B grade rider (not placing but finishing with the bunch), and would like to be able to try and work my way up to A grade by the end of the year. I ride up to 300k a week, but this will depend on my work load.?It seems like a very broad question, but how would I be able to achieve this outcome?  A combination of the right Diet and Riding I assume – but is that it?  Some guidance in the right direction would be greatly appreciated.

I thought this question would be a good one to let Rob Crowe answer. He’s out there creating A-Grader champions every day and he’s been through this a thousand times.  Crowie has competed at the top level of the sport I learn something every time I ride with him.  He also rides a Parlee!  A very wise man indeed…


The high-performance cycling racing engine is much like that of a Formula 1 car in that you need to have numerous aspects working well together to get the top-end outputs going well.

Below is a summarized list of the key elements that any training cyclist will need to be addressing in some way in order to compete at Australian Metro A-Grade Club Racing standard.

5 Key Elements to Consider:

1.      Training Structure
2.      Technique
3.      Fuels
4.      Races
5.      Strategies

Training Structure
Over the next 2 months do a phase of strength training, followed by some high-powered training efforts.  Make sure that the rest days are well placed and done properly (1 per week, 2 days before the efforts). You will need to complete 2 or 3 weeks of at least one heavy session per week of ‘strength training efforts’. This means 3 or 4 blocks of 10-12mins on big gear work. Whether it’s on the hills, going faster on the flats or grinding in the head-winds – it doesn’t really matter, it’s just got to be heavy work for 10mins minimum, then cruising for a while, then another one.

After an easier week of riding, hit the power work-out phase. These are shorter 20secs to 1min efforts of high-speed driving (doing turns for the pack), sprinting or faster climbing intervals out of the saddle. It is a maximal acceleration you’re after so the cadence should rise as well as the velocity during the surge. If you get warmed up well and then do as many as 5 or 6 of these on a short hill, bunch ride or on the indoor trainer or ergo.  You will WANT to go home by the end of these.  Full rest days once per week are critical in heavy or high-speed workload weeks.

High level riders use many of the following things to enhance their pedal-stroke technique and gain a smoother style, execution of power and constant pedaling pressure to save them during the faster racing situations like breakaways,
chases or finishing laps:

  • downhill pedaling
  • track bike riding (fixed-wheel)
  • ergo machine training
  • Mountain biking
  • riding fast in tailwinds
  • small chain-ring (or ‘restricted’ gear) riding in a bunch
  • riding on a set of low-resistance ‘rollers’
  • core workouts using Swiss-balls, Pilates, simply body-mass core exercise routines (push-ups, chin-ups & sit-ups). When the core is good, the big cycling muscles can work harder for longer. Simple.

Keep the engine clean with regularity. The funny thing about the human body is it gets better at things if you give it consistency. This is true of training patterns, sleep patterns, work patterns & … food patterns. The key is to get into some good habits so that you’re engine is getting the good stuff: enough H2O, enough proteins & carbohydrates, enough minerals – and then leave it alone! People change things around too much with different race foods, pill supplements, times of day of eating etc and the body never settles down to become efficient. You need good nutritional fuels & hydration. The body will burn more fat than usual with cycling due to the increased volume of riding per week, but it’s not a signal to relax into more fast foods or snacks because it’s the ‘clean’ engine that saves fuel on digestion, slow-release energy production & keeping bug-free that wins out in the end.

Rehearsals are just about the only element that can stand alone in these 5 listed pointers. He who rehearses but manages no other element very well can still often prosper. It is the advantage of knowing your turf, knowing the competition, knowing what happens in your body under strain & how to handle it which differentiates B-Graders from the A-Graders the most. The speed strains in A-Grade races, wherever you go in the world, will be significantly longer and faster than in a B-Grade event at the same race meeting.

Practice is absolutely necessary.  Practice racing on the circuit, practice getting nervous before the start and just before the finish too, practice during the training program – while you’re tired and while you’re rested. Because of rehearsals, a good racing cyclist will then focus not on the feeling in the legs, but on opportunities that arise in the race as it unfolds.

The icing on the cake! While you’re in your practice race events you want to be taking note of who is doing what and why. This ranges from bunch positioning,  timing of attacks and chasing the various breakaway attempts, to the finishing laps and the sprinting pathways that riders take. Knowing how to read a race amongst the surges, the attacks, the drop-offs and the teamwork will significantly change the outcome you can aim for.

Unfortunately you cannot learn a great deal about racing strategy from the written word.  It must be experienced in full flight to really understand. There is nothing more true than the old adage: “it’s better to be out the front dying, than out the back flying” (a.k.a. nothing ventured, nothing gained). You MUST use courage, commitment, deliberation and tenacity, as much as guile, patience, persistence & wisdom in a sport like road cycling.  Go and get it.

There is no better lesson for the budding newcomer to the A-Grade field than several unsuccessful endeavors to beat the pack.

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