As the pack motored away from me, leaving me 30 lonely miles short of the finish, I reminded myself that it was still early in the season, and that killing myself to keep up at this point wasn't a good idea. I rode my own pace the rest of the way.
Later that summer I had great success, taking first and second place in back-to-back races. I felt like I could ride away from anyone on the hills. Epic turnaround? Lucky break? Nope - it was my steady early-season training finally paying off.
The first part of training - whether you're racing, touring or recreational riding - is mostly about going slow. Riding long distances at a moderate pace within your limits - known as "base mileage training," - develops your aerobic endurance, the basic element of cycling fitness. The length of your base period depends on your specific goals, but a rule of thumb is to do base training for about one-third of your full season.
You develop your aerobic endurance by riding just above 60% of your heart rate (a heart rate monitor will help you stay on target). A strong aerobic base allows your muscles to operate for a long period of time without building up lactic acid, giving you increased stamina and endurance.
The opposite of aerobic is anaerobic training, which is a level of activity at which lactic acid is being produced too fast to be eliminated by your system, or over 80% of maximum effort. High-intensity anaerobic training comes only after a solid aerobic build up.
Picture your training as a pyramid, with aerobic endurance base mileage accounting for the wide base, and the pinnacle of the pyramid your main goal for the season. The wider the base, the higher the peak; the more base miles you put in, the faster and more comfortable you'll ride.
When you pedal long distances, leg speed and strength decline, so mix "spin-ups" and "power hills" into your base mileage training once a week. For spin-ups, shift to a very easy gear on a flat, and spin the gear as fast as you can for 30 seconds. Rest for 10 minutes and repeat three times. This exercise maintains leg speed so your muscles don't forget how to go fast.
Power hills are just the opposite: Put your bike in a big gear that you can just turn over slowly, and ride up a steady hill for 3-5 minutes. This exercise builds power and strength. With this drill, be careful not to strain your muscles, especially your back.
Getting back into regular riding habits isn't easy to do. Chances are you're a bit out of shape, and the bicycle doesn't feel nearly as comfortable as it did last summer. First, remember that all good things come to those who train patiently. Second, there are several things that help in the mental motivation department while you do your long base mile rides:
Base mileage doesn't have to be limited to the early season only. It's possible to do a second base period and build back up after hitting a peak - just ease off and ride steady for a few weeks.
A strong aerobic endurance base is the best way, if not the only way, to achieve your goals for the year - whether that means winning a race, finishing your first century ride or hanging with the regular Sunday group for the whole ride.