Part 4: Break Down the Challenge

If only all winter mornings could be like this one!

So I’ve entered the UK National 24-hour Time Trial Champs in July 2022 – riding as far as I can on open roads in a 24 hour period – oh dear…
As a 44 year old dad working full-time as an ICU doctor, I’m not going to win – but I still want to ride a performance to be proud of. More than that, I want the whole process to feel enriching, with learning and adventures along the way.  
Over six months, I’ll be finding out more about everything needed to perform in an ultra-distance bike race. By sharing what I learn, I hope to discover more about the sport, myself, and the ingredients of success…or failure.

It’s one thing having a goal for a 24-hr TT, but how am I going to get there?  It’s time to break down the demands of the event and figure out what’s needed…

Like any big challenge, it feels overwhelming to consider, all at once, all of the training and preparation needed.  Instead, I am a firm believer in breaking it down into separate areas, to appreciate what matters most and focus effort in the right places. As the cyclist and engineer Dan Bigham recommends in his excellent book, Start at the End,(1) we can begin by getting back to first principles.

Fundamentally, a 24-hr TT is a long, solo, ride against the clock on open roads. Results are given by mileage and the winner is the person with the highest average speed on the day. 

Speed on a TT bike comes from Power (pushing the bike forward) divided by Resistance (slowing the bike down). In a 24-hr event, the clock keeps running regardless, so the final distance will also depend on the amount of time actually spent riding.  The basic formula for a 24-hr, then is:

We can then look at each of Power, Drag and Time in turn to figure out what governs them.  The simplest of these is Time, which comes from the total time allowed minus any pit-stops (for food, drink, clothing, toilet, lights etc) and mechanical problems (punctures or otherwise). The formula starts to expand:

Turning now to Power, this is a result of all the factors leading to the body’s physical performance : the amount of power that can be sustained on the day. For an ultra-distance event, these are Aerobic Fitness, Pacing, Hydration, and Energy Supply.  So Potential Power can be shown as:

But there’s always a difference between our potential and what we can actually deliver on the day.  This is regulated by the mind, which tries to protect our body from excessive and damaging efforts.  It does this by governing our power output to what it believes to be safely sustainable – the concept of the “Central Governor”.(2) 

But far from being a fixed restrictor of power output, the Central Governor is flexible and depends on our circumstances. Some factors will open up it up (eg. motivation, confidence and stimulation), while others will close it down (mental fatigue, worries and external stresses).

We can also break down the Resistance side of the equation. Cyclists are typically obsessed with weight, but on a flat or rolling course, wind resistance is actually the biggest factor.  

This analysis of my own data (from a 12-hr TT on the same course as this summer’s 24), shows 57% of my energy went into pushing me through the air.  Another 23% went into the resistance of my chain, gears, and tyres on the road, while only 20% was used to climb hills.

From these fundamentals, we can continue to work backwards, eventually finding the specifics that need to be developed.  

Taking Air Resistance as an example, this involves both Equipment Drag and Rider Drag.  Rider Drag depends on having an optimised riding position and then being able to sustain it… and a sustained position needs whole-body strength and resilience in the neck muscles.  These, then, are the things that I need to work on.

Expanding the diagram out to show everything I want to address, it starts to look a bit complex, but there’s also find something reassuring about seeing it all fit together.  

It is also good to recognise that, with 22 weeks to go, I am not starting from scratch in any of these areas.  Instead, I plan to use this blog to help me focus on each key area in turn, to work out what more I can do to give myself the best chance on the day. 

Next time, I’ll start by looking at how to develop the engine: aerobic fitness…

Quality winter chaingang with Paddy and the VC Venta boys

References:

  1. Bigham D. Start at the End: How Reverse-Engineering Can Lead to Success. Wellbeck Publishing Group 2021
  2. Weir JP, Beck TW, Cramer JT, et al Is fatigue all in your head? A critical review of the central governor model. British Journal of Sports Medicine 2006;40:573-586.

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