Why Egan Bernal climbed 20,000 meters in a week, and why you probably shouldn’t
Three hundred kilometers on a time trial bike. Twenty thousand meters (65,000ft) climbed in a single week. Four thousand kilometers ridden in a single month.
These stats, from Geraint Thomas, Egan Bernal, and Chris Froome, point to a purposeful use of massive rides ahead of the professional season. But the pros, quite clearly, are not like the rest of us.
Froome put in about 4,000 kilometers of training – with plenty of climbing on top of the distance, of course – in January of 2018. Thomas uploaded a photo of his Garmin, mounted to TT bars, in December of 2019 with the odometer at 309.4 kilometers. While most of us were sleeping in, eating leftovers, celebrating, or recovering over New Year’s week, Bernal got in around 1,100 kilometers in on the bike.
And it’s not just the last few Tour winners putting in big time, of course. Astounding offseason training rides are just what we’ve come to expect from countless marquee riders. It might as well be a holiday tradition at this point, we mere mortals taking it easy while waiting to see what kind of massive offseason ride the pros will put in next.
With that in mind, this January seemed like a great time to find out what goes into planning the kind of offseason training program that includes such huge days out on the bike. Why do they do it, and how?
For the pros, the weeks before racing kicks off again in mid-January to February offer and a chance to focus fully on building fitness without the stress of getting ready for a big race right around the corner. Often, it is a time to build back into form after a period away from rigorous training. For Ben Day, a high-performance coach with Mitchelton-Scott and for other athletes, that break in the action is the critical starting point for any offseason training program.
“If you don’t have that time off mentally, you start to lose the quality of effort and the motivation starts to wane,” Day says. “It really comes back to bite you in the ass later.”
From there, a coach builds out offseason training plans around the objectives for the season ahead. For pro riders, whose races often top 200km, this part of the year often incorporates huge rides – or huge weeks of riding – for a number of reasons.
For starters, there is the concept of accruing “base miles,” an approach with a long history as a training tool for cyclists, although also one that garners mixed opinions these days. For the many coaches and riders who value base miles, the idea is to build an aerobic foundation on longer, low-intensity rides, and then incorporate training that builds speed on top of that.
The idea is that these long rides stimulate adaptations related to aerobic endurance and also mitochondrial density, and improve the body’s ability to burn fat as fuel. Development in those critical areas ideally allows cyclists to work harder and more efficiently in training moving forward. Their bodies move oxygen better and use energy more efficiently.
Day says he is a traditionalist (as are plenty of other coaches around the sport) in the way he builds training plans around progressive periodization.
“This is going back to doing endurance riding first, layering strength and tempo in after that, working into some sub-threshold stuff, threshold as you get closer to the racing, and then finally working on that race-specific stuff in the final month or so when they’re going into the big [events],” Day says. “I find that that is the most robust way of setting up an athlete going into the season.”
Day finds the offseason to be an especially good time for the long rides that build aerobic endurance and stimulate fat-burning adaptation because of the timescale associated with endurance training.
“Aerobic development comes on very slowly but it also degrades very slowly as well,” he says. “If we put that in the bank, it will last us over a very long period of time.”
Once Day’s athletes have laid their aerobic groundwork, they can shift to speed-focused efforts later. Though in years past there was much talk of “reverse periodization,” or swapping the traditional base/intensity timelines, it certainly appears that Ineos’ Tour winners are taking a more traditional approach.
Other coaches don’t necessarily put as much stock into the concept of building on a foundation of base miles. Neal Henderson, who counts Rohan Dennis (Ineos) and Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) among his many esteemed coaching clients, says he is a known “heretic” when it comes to base miles.
“Some athletes will clearly perform pretty well off of a more volume and lowered intensity approach for certain types of efforts,” Henderson says. “You will find some other athletes who try to do that same type of training and will not gain the same benefit from it. They would find greater yield from doing three- or four-hour rides with more high-intensity efforts.”
Indeed, that specificity of training for each individual athlete is a major factor at play for the pros posting monster rides to Strava ahead of the season. There is value in such rides for the pros regardless of their opinions on base miles.
If you’re a WorldTour pro, you’d better be adapted to a long day on the bike. Classics and even Grand Tour stages will often run well over 200 kilometers, so it makes sense to put in training sessions that prepare the body for putting in efforts at the end of a long ride.
“Take Milano-Sanremo, a seven-hour race, that’s a big day,” Henderson says. “Having adequate endurance to be able to succeed in an event like Milano-Sanremo, that clearly takes more than three- or four-hour rides. That’s just not going to leave you prepared for the specific demand.”
Completing those longer rides can have other benefits as well.
“In some way there’s an aspect of placing challenges for the athlete to gain confidence in their capacity,” he says. “Any given training schedule, when I’m writing it, it’s not simply a physiological demand output target. It’s an entire organism of preparations for performance. Confidence is one of the most underrated things that we can be developing in a well-designed and followed training plan.”
In short, a variety of motivations can see the WorldTour stars go (really, really) long in December and January. But what about the rest of us? Should we aspire to rack up a thousand kilometers a week over the holidays? That depends.
First, Henderson and Day both point out that long days for the pros in offseason training mode are different from the long days we might put in at home. Context is important. The pros are often riding with a support car or at least other riders around. They don’t always need to scope out a place and then stop for food. They have soigneurs waiting to provide post-ride massages. And they’re typically riding somewhere warm, with few other distractions around.
That’s not to diminish the herculean efforts that the pros put in, but it does put things into perspective; for the rest of us, a seven-hour training ride in January would look pretty distinct.
What’s more, the pros are generally adapted to those sorts of efforts in ways that amateurs are not. Training all the time will do that. Day notes that he generally avoids giving seven-hour rides even to neo-pros, let alone amateurs.
“WorldTour riders are very highly aerobically adapted,” he says. “I need them to get through a balance of volume and moderate intensity in their first year. Often what we find is after that and then the heavy race schedule, with hard races that they’ll have, after that they are a new athlete.”
Even for an amateur with unlimited time, resources, and fitness (which sounds about as plausible as a unicorn to us), the value, or lack of value, of those overlong sessions depends on each athlete’s goals. It comes back to specificity. Riding like Bernal may be a fun challenge, and even a worthwhile experiment, but if you aren’t training for a Monument, it may also be the case that different types of efforts are better-tailored to your goals
“You have to understand who is the athlete and what can they handle,” Day says. “Trial and error are sometimes necessary.”
So if you do happen to have the inclination to go long on a wide-open afternoon in great weather with no distractions and are already sporting WorldTour-level fitness, feel free to give it a go.
Maybe it will work for you. Maybe, you will find that a different approach yields better results – but at the very least, the rest of us will be impressed when you upload it, and that’s got to count for something.