Alex Dowsett is the Tour de France cyclist who trains on the British roads of Essex to ensure he stays on target for the season’s racing. His wins include a stage of the Giro d Italia and multiple national time trial championships despite suffering from haemophilia. So how does he deal with the wind, rain and cold of early spring while building his endurance base, and getting fitter?
RSNG went on a rideout with him to find out, and test the new SRAM Red eTAP AXS groupset on Canyon’s CF SLX. As Dowsett points out, the major change to its electronic gears and disc brakes makes riding on varied terrain a smoother experience. ‘The main difference is the smaller front chainring. It has meant you can stay in the big chainring for a lot longer,’ he told us. ‘Normally, when you’re changing chainrings you have to come off the gas a fair bit. You can’t go small chainring 10 sprocket but you can cross your big chainring and big sprocket and still be every bit as efficient as any other sprocket.’ Scroll to the end of this feature for RSNG’s own impressions on the groupset.
As well as riding for UCI WorldTeam Team Katusha–Alpecin, Dowsett is also founder of coaching company Cyclism, so he has some tried and tested tips for getting riding faster, for longer. If you’re aiming to ride some races or sportives this summer, or just want to improve your bike riding range, then read on…
Do Match Training To Your Time
‘What actually spurred me into starting a coaching business was talking to a guy who said he was doing base mileage (which is slow and steady) but he only had six hours a week to train.’ As Dowsett points out, you need to pedal for longer to achieve good base mileage training gains, which come after 20-30 hours of training a week. Many of use don’t have that kind of time, so be honest with yourself and use Dowsett’s alternative solution:
‘If you haven’t got the time to do base mileage training properly then you have to supplement it with intensity,’ he says. ‘If you are going for an hour on the turbo trainer for an hour say, doing longer stints at zone 3 or Zone 4, fluctuating around that threshold mark, a few minutes under and a few minutes over, is really good.’
Don’t Let Your Training Go Stale
This is the time where cyclists traditionally work on their endurance in order to adapt the body to process more oxygen. That’s fine if you have the time but don’t fall into the trap of doing the same steady state or interval session every time. ‘If you do the same thing all of the time then your body gets good at that and efficient at it and you don’t see the same gains from it, so look for new sessions.’ says Dowsett who practises what he preaches.
‘You have to shock your body, I’m a big believer in that’
For this season he has swapped a higher intensity training load with a lower intensity one. ‘I did fewer hours with my previous coach but much higher intensity all year around. With Kev Poulton [Head Coach] I have just finished a big block of endurance with a lot of hours compared to what I have been used to – it has been a bit of a shock to the system but it has been good.’ This forms a key part of Dowsett’s training philosophy. ‘You have to shock your body, I’m a big believer in that.’
Do Get A Coach
Talking of coaches, Dowsett says that as well as being a great way to progress your riding, a coach can also help get you out riding in bad weather when motivation may be low. They are also useful for finding chinks in your armour. ‘It’s very easy to work at the things you are good at and enjoy, but it’s difficult to motivate yourself to work on bits that you hate,’ he says. ‘If you’re a bad climber then you should probably climb more.’
Do Get Into Zwift
When the light is low and the roads are wet, it can be almost impossible to train with any kind of intensity. That’s partly why the online riding simulator Zwift has gathered such a following of riders. ‘A lot of guys are doing Zwift Racing now and I think exposure to that intensity is really good – it’s that completely unstructured intensity as well. In a race, that competition aspect means that you pull a bit more out of yourself than you would do normally,’ says Dowsett.
‘One of my mates has barely ridden on the road at all this winter and he’s the fittest I have ever seen him because he’s been Zwift racing every night!’ And there’s nothing like riding with other people to show you your strengths.
‘It’s a fantastic starting point and you will realise quite quickly where you’re good, where you’re not good, which is what you should work on and tap up someone for proper coaching advice. It doesn’t teach you the craft of cornering or tactics within a peloton but it makes it bloody hard.’
Do Find A Training Partner
Cycling can be a sociable sport and long training rides go much faster if you have someone to ride next to and chat with. ‘Having Marco with me in Australia [for the training camp] was good,’ agrees Dowsett. ‘On days where one of you is not motivated the other would be and vice versa. That’s the same for eating, making sure we both stayed eating healthily. It’s like last Sunday when the weather was truly awful there were seven of us out, and I think that we were all out because we were all out.’
‘This difference between being dropped on a climb or not is the difference between training properly and training badly’
Don’t Let Excuses Derail Your Progress
It’s easy to throw in the towel when riding into a cold headwind or spring downpour, but that would send your progress backwards, warns Dowsett. ‘I remind myself what it is like to not finish a session; how I would feel at home afterwards. If the plan is to do five hours and I am on four and could go home, could not, then the rest of the day I am going to be thinking: “I should have done that extra 20-60 minutes.” I know I will feel bad about it, and what’s 20-60 minutes when you’ve already been out for four? And the hardest thing is getting out.’
‘The other thing is reminding yourself what it’s like to struggle in a race. For me that feeling of being dropped on a climb and wondering how on earth I am ever going to be good enough not to be the first, but then actually the difference between being dropped and being mid-pack and making it over isn’t a great deal, and it’s also the difference between training properly and training badly.’
‘Thinking about why I am doing the training and what the end result is going to be and having that in my mind has been crucial – it helps in the dark times.’
Do Get Some Bad Weather Gear
RSNG has ridden in some fairly Biblical weather before but however cold and wet it gets you can stack the odds of finishing your session in your favour by picking the right kit. Some spring days are warmer than others but you’ll need a couple of different leg covering options for cold, dry days and cold, wet ones. The rideout was the former so I rode in Endura’s FS260-PRO Thermo Bibtight (£99.99) and layered a Endura Pro SL LS thermal jersey with the minimum in ‘sudden downpour’ protection: the lightweight Pro Adrenaline Race Cape II (£77.99).
Do Work Off The Bike
Being fit for cycling isn’t all about time in the saddle. If you spend a lot of time sat behind a desk then the chances are your core might be unstable, so it’s important to do exercises like planks and Russian twists off the bike. Dowsett says he has a strong core from his swimming background but does keep it topped up, in order to maintain a good position on the bike. At the end of the gruelling hour World Record, which he broke in 2015 – by riding 52.491km in 60 minutes – he says his position on the bike was the same as at the start, making him more efficient, but the same will apply to your own training rides.
He also finds that active recovery off the bike is important. ‘I do a lot of stretching – it makes a difference. It kind of makes my handlebars feel a bit closer than they are and makes riding the drops easier – if I haven’t stretched then they get further away.’
‘If I stretch the back, glutes, hamstrings and calves then the riding becomes a lot more comfortable and I’m all about being comfortable!’
Do Supplement Climbs With The Turbo
Unless you live in the Alps then the chances of your local rides including long, steep climbs uninterrupted by traffic lights, tailbacks and wet conditions are going to be pretty slim. So, how can you replicate those efforts? ‘That’s the kind of thing I do on the turbo trainer,’ says Dowsett. Some turbo trainers now even come with a tower for your front wheel that raises and lowers the bike position to mimic climbs and descents.
‘Just remember the efforts you need for climbing; if it’s for racing then it’s threshold efforts, if not then it’s just riding that bit harder in a slightly lower gear riding on the tops; 10-30 minute blocks at Heart Zone 3. It’s about making sure you get your exposure to that.’
‘And if you manage to get away somewhere to train then go somewhere hilly. It doesn’t mean that you will be attacking each climb, like Alberto Contador, it’s just about riding and making each route as hilly as possible – don’t nail yourself in the first hour!’
SRAM eTap AXS Groupset: The RSNG Review
RSNG met with Alex Dowsett at Braintree’s Blue Egg Cafe to ride his local Essex country lanes and test out the new 12-speed SRAM Red eTap AXS wireless Groupset, fitted to Canyon’s Aeroad CF SLX. As soon as I started pedalling up the road, taking advantage of Dowsett’s slipstream, it became apparent that the electronic shifters on this gearset take the lightest of touches to activate. There’s less movement and therefore feedback than on the Shimano Di2 competition, for instance, but you soon get used to it and there may be some benefit to fatigued hands on those century rides.
The SRAM system of shifting makes sense to Dowsett, who had done twelve days of racing as well as the training on it – he admits that the riders were slightly apprehensive beforehand because of the changes. ‘It works very well – having up on the right, down on the left, both at the same time to change chainring just makes sense. Campag was good although the reach around for the thumb lever was tough if you were climbing on the drops.’
As we mentioned above, having twelves sprockets on the rear cassette allows for a smaller big chainring at the front, meaning you can use it for longer before changing down into the smaller ring. ‘If you can hang onto the big chainring you do – changing it is the last thing we do,’ says Dowsett.
There’s also an app you can use for custom settings. ‘The function of the app that stood out in my mind was that if you want to change chainring there is an option for the rear derailleur to adjust the rear sprocket accordingly, to give you more or less the same gear so you don’t suddenly have a drop down in cadence or vice versa – it’s useful,’ reveals Dowsett.
We found that on our Canyon Aeroad CF SLX, having an extra sprocket on the 12-speed rear gear cassette allowed for a gear ratio that had a ridiculous amount of power available when blasting along the flats – it’s a sprinter’s dream.
The RSNG Verdict: 4 Stars
If you’re looking for a pro-level wireless groupset that makes gear shifting buttery smooth and totally non fatiguing, while offering smartphone app customisation, then check out the SRAM Red eTap AXS.
WHAT NEXT? Watch Alex Dowsett talk about his winter training with UCI WorldTeam Team Katusha–Alpecin and his goals for 2019.