Notes from the Gruppetto
Don’t sweat about getting swole
The weighting game
Late into this year’s off-season, I snuck away for four days of solo riding in the South Carolina hills. The days were filled with many switchbacks, quiet back roads and Confederate flags on pickup trucks. The nights were consumed with recovery massages, gluttonous eating and lots of gossip about cycling. This veritable forcefeeding of all things cycling was made possible by the Hotel Domestique, a cycling-focused hotel started by George Hincapie. Probably the most interesting and/or depressing thing I learned about what it takes to be a professional cyclist was a small fact that I heard about Hincapie. When training and racing at the highest levels of the sport, Big George refused to pick up his children for fear that he would bulk up. That’s right: he left his kids on the ground to avoid developing any sort of musculature that would impede his ability to climb.
The message in this story is pretty clear: wait until after cycling to have kids. Actually, it seems cyclists don’t weight train. Just look at emaciated climbers such as Alberto Contador or Chris Froome who appear as if they might snap if you hugged them. Even “big guys” such as Tom Boonen wouldn’t be out of place among waifish runway models. It seems that doing anything to bulk up just isn’t smart.
Yet just as commonly held beliefs in cycling such as “don’t eat the middle of the bread or you’ll get fat,” or “air conditioning will make you sick even when it’s 40 C outside” are gradually being abandoned, the thinking on strength and conditioning is evolving as well. For the past year, I’ve been listening closely to people like former pro Andrew Randell, owner of The Cycling Gym, talk about why it’s so important to build your body in preparation for racing. “I totally wrecked my body from years of just riding,” Randell says. “The best way to avoid this is through strength training.” Trevor Connor, Velonews contributor and the coach of my club’s race team, furthers Randell’s ideas. “Weight training improves the resistance of muscle fibres and delays recruitment when riding. Weights or plyometrics will help you in the third hour of your big race.”
This past fall, I was duly inspired and engaged Randell to design a simple program for me. He prescribed some “simple” kettlebell exercises, such as squats and lunges, as well as some exercises with ropes and rings like pushups and chin-ups. He then instructed me to try a few and film myself so he could assess my form. I had a friend shoot footage on my phone, which I sent to Randell. Minutes later I got a message back: “You’d better stop now and just come in for some guidance before you hurt yourself.”
When I went into the gym, it quickly became clear how few muscles cycling worked. I could sit on my TT bike and jam out 300 watts for 20 minutes, but I couldn’t pick up a 20 lb. kettlebell and do a proper squat without coming close to injuring myself. When I did one-leg work, I found my stabilizer muscles were non-existent. The chin-up bar had nothing to fear from me. My tendons screamed bloody murder when I tried to lift a hex bar.
Undaunted, Randell patiently walked me through the proper techniques and recorded videos of me for further help. Then he sent me off into the world. I joined a gym near my work and started to go for weekly sessions of self-inflicted humiliation. Surrounded by beautiful people with hairy legs, I lifted my small weights and developed my scrawny body. Suddenly an amazing thing happened – week by week, the numbers went up. You see, when you have no muscular strength, you can make gains very quickly. It’s like playing Candycrush: you get a lot of little dopamine hits early on, and then you are hooked. As my muscles grew, so too did my tendons. I could actually hold things without my hands crying foul. Now, my strength workouts replace easy ride days.
Now, in the midst of race season, I’m working out weekly to ensure I don’t lose the gains I’ve made. And if I can’t make it to the gym, I just pick up my five year old to get my reps in.
“Surrounded by beautiful people with hairy legs, I lifted my small weights and developed my scrawny body.”