Should you upgrade in the first place?
We hear this question all the time, should I upgrade? It’s a difficult question to answer, because each athlete represents a unique case. We like to take this approach. Ultimately, your long-term goals should be the driving force as to whether an upgrade should be done. For example, you know you want to progress to higher levels of the sport. You achieve your upgrade towards the latter part of the race season (August/September.) We suggest you upgrade at that time (versus waiting until next season), as it gives you a “taste” of what to expect as you go into the following year. The alternative is waiting through the offseason, and being a bit nervous about what to expect in your first races of the New Year.
The opposite example is a rider who feels that they will not compete at the higher level and are “happy” where they are in terms of competition. They take the approach of why would I ever want to go up in category, when I know I don’t have the time or dedication to be able to compete. Well, our answer to that is don’t sell yourself short in terms of your ability. You may surprise yourself and you never want to look back and wish you had done something that you didn’t even want to try!
Ultimately, we are in this sport to improve and we always favor (eventually) upgrading versus not doing so. You’ve earned your stripes, right? So go for it!
So it’s not exactly Cat 5 to Cat 4 but Taylor Phinney has certainly done well upgrading from the U/23 ranks to the WorldTour.
The Next Frontier
Pretty simple here in terms of what to expect. There are larger pelotons, more aggressiveness, faster pace, better tactics, and better-organized teams. Races are longer and harder. One thing we hear a lot is that riders believe if they go to the next category, they will perform better because their strength is endurance and the races are longer. Make no mistake about it, the races are longer but they are also a lot more aggressive and difficult all the way around. It’s not the course that makes a race as hard as the competition and each level has a higher quality of rider.
Climbing the Totem Pole
It’s the same in any area of life, whether it is sports or business. When you make the jump up, you are basically at the bottom of the totem pole and have to start over in terms of paying your dues and adjusting to the new level you have just attained. Our advice is pretty simple. It requires patience and hard work. Don’t forget you made the jump to get there, so you must have been doing something right. Keep doing the same things and have patience that in time, your fitness will improve; you will learn the new level of competition and ultimately will have success. Also, use this opportunity to help teammates that have already been at that level for sometime. Being the new kid on the block can give you the opportunity to learn from them, specifically by being a dedicated teammate.
Even U23 level success is no guarantee of a smooth transition to the pro ranks though, as Phinney experienced at the brutal Stage 6 of this year’s Tirreno-Adriatico.
Should Your Training Change?
The higher level we achieve, the harder it gets to succeed. Sure, we all know of someone that is just a “natural,” but for the majority of athletes, it’s a constant battle! We all see someone who is naturally gifted and have a difficult time getting by the fact that we have to work that much harder. The fact of the matter is that as you go up the ladder, it’s a battle and you do need to adjust your program and training. How? Well, that’s an article for another day, but make no mistake about it, nothing substitutes for volume.
As another suggestion, we think it’s vital to have two paths to follow. 1) The event or race path - where you choose races that will allow you to improve and achieve a level of success and 2) A physiological or training goal to give you a sense that you are doing the right things and that race success will eventually come. For example, it may be a local time trial or field test.
At Athleticamps we have the “25-mile club” for this specific purpose. This includes an incredible 15-mile climb up in the foothills where we have our athletes work on their aerobic capacity, set goals and steadily watch their improvement. We use this as a springboard for their event goals and even though the event goals may come slower, they know they are improving and doing the right things!
Upgrade Your Training Environment?
For the majority of riders, our environment and not our physiology limit us. That is a very important concept to grasp. Most athletes are limited by what they can do training and racing due to family, life, jobs, etc. This has to be taken into account when you consider when and if to upgrade. Most athletes we work with and test are well within the bell curve of having “what it takes” to compete. It’s more about how much they can sacrifice to become a better bike racer. So, make sure you understand this and make the most of out your training and racing program to be the best you can be!
Ride safe, ride strong,
Bruce Hendler is a USA Cycling Coach and owner of AthletiCamps in Northern California. For the past 11 years, he and his experienced team have helped athletes of all levels achieve their goals in the great sport of bike racing.