10th June 2016
Performing at the top-end of any sport requires determination and energy levels of herculean proportions, but if you’re considering a foray into cycling, how much fitter are the front runners compared to someone who, at best, would be starting from the back of the pack?
Amira Mellor is 18 years of age and a member of the Bailey-sponsored Matrix Pro Cycling Team. She’s ranked 45th in the world at Cyclocross and bagged a top 15 finish in the world championships. Fit, determined and with a great cycling pedigree, big things are on the horizon.
My story is slightly different. I’m a 45-year-old father of 2 with a bronze medal for throwing the cricket ball and a 25 metre swimming badge. The last time I cycled regularly was in 1985, but as my paper round had me pedaling like crazy 6 days a week, I hoped some of this ‘training’ would be lying dormant until test day. With perfect comedy timing, a recent over 40’s health check gave me a few stats and, helpfully, suggested I was ok to pit myself against a trained athlete who is barely old enough to buy an alcoholic drink. I’m 5ft 11 3/4in tall, 14 stone (give or take a cooked breakfast) with a BMI of 26.9 and a cholesterol level of 5.7. Glass half-empty, my levels are above the government guidelines of 25 (BMI) and 5 (cholesterol). Glass half full, my blood pressure was ok and the occasional 10K run was helping. I’d also convinced myself that blood-thickening, high altitude training was almost the same as blood-thickening, above average cholesterol.
Understandably, I was a little nervous especially when confronted by an actual lab with actual Doctors. With height, weight and blood pressure checked, the team told Amira & I that we would be exercising to exhaustion while our blood lactate levels and cardiorespiratory fitness were monitored. In front of us were two exercise bikes – one looking incredibly professional with space-age looks and untold adjustments…and the other a bit Mary Poppins minus the basket. No prizes for guessing which was mine.
We began with a 5-minute warm-up at 50 watts and a cadence between 80-90 rpm before the stopwatch began and a 25-watt increase signaled the start of the test. At 4 minutes, each stage may seem incredibly short but every one of those 240 seconds included physiological barriers such as heart rate and blood checks plus the terrifying prospect of another 25 watts being added all too soon. Not being a big fan of needles, the prick tests (to measure lactate levels) were a big concern during the early stages but with the finish predicted to be less than 40 minutes away, I knew I’d soon have other things to worry about.
Switching from full English to muesli that morning may have helped psychologically as I felt pretty good until level 5 but this is where my ability to talk tailed-off and my legs began to feel somewhat wooden. Knowing there’s no hill to crest and descent to enjoy I tried to forget the aim of this test – ever increasing levels of difficulty until we could take no more. The oxygen-monitoring mask was beginning to whistle with the effort and by level 6 sweat was beginning to run into my eyes. I also had to indicate my tiredness level on a chart and nodding at the correct moment took far more concentration that it should. I thought having the clock in front of me would serve as a carrot-on-a-stick to complete each stage but, in reality, it was my undoing on stage 8 when, feeling like 4 minutes must be up, 40 seconds wasn’t what I wanted to see. This broke me and brought my test to an end.
The intensity of the test was eventually too much for Amira and in a rather strange way, her flushed face and shortness of breath made me feel a bit better, although I seemed to be sweating enough for both of us. Having a professional cyclist say a 40-minute test is harder than a 3-hour race gave me a boost as did agreeing wholeheartedly that a test without end is a mind and body breaker.
How will this test be used?
The test measures oxygen and lactate levels to determine a ‘sweet spot’ at which to train plus it can also be used to predict performance. Aerobic fitness is obviously important for cycling but keeping an optimum lactate level will help muscles whereas too much will hinder them. This test removes the guesswork. Unsurprisingly, my levels were approximately 25% less than Amira’s, something which may hamper my chances of Rio 2016 selection.
I came, I saw but was unable to conquer. Training and competing at this level requires commitment, talent and phenomenal levels of fitness. In reality, I was never going for gold at the lab test but taking part gives an insight that watching from the outside never could. With training regimes tailored to the results from the lab test, I’ll be joining the Matrix team behind the scenes in race HQ – the Bailey Approach Advance – to see how a training day translates into race day.