Oliver Wright: Why do we use the turbo so much these days?

The racing season is upon us and the days of long base miles are gone for many, its time for some intensity in their’ riding. After the revelation by Tour of Med winner Jonathan Tiernan-Locke that he was on the turbo for a month before his training camp, Oliver Wright looks at the question, #why do we use the turbo so much these days?

“I seem to have been asking myself this question a lot lately” says Oliver. Why do I use a turbo trainer so much?

Over the last couple of weeks, a combination of extra work and family stuff has meant nearly all of my riding has been turbo work. It sort of makes sense as I can fit sessions in at odd times of the day (or night), when road riding wouldn’t be particularly practical. I can also get a good workout and still manage to be there for the family. I still find myself longing to be out on the road though. Sweating away in the cellar is just not the same as a good ‘soul’ ride, on a bright sunny morning.

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This week saw my first road ride in a couple of weeks. A day off work with the children in school and nursery meant that I was at last free to get out. Due to the freezing conditions, I daren’t leave the main roads and after four hours, I could barely feel my hands, feet or even face! I had my answer, using the turbo is both safer and (marginally) more comfortable.

So this morning, with the air temperature hovering somewhere below -5C, I made my now regular pilgrimage to the cellar. To an outsider, it must look odd, a grown man wearing shorts and a vest sneaking under the house before dawn only to return an hour or so later quite literally steaming in the cold morning air. There is a certain element of ritual to my sessions.

Always using the same kit saves wasting time worrying about what to wear and I can keep faffing time to a minimum. Walking across the front of the house to a small door accesses our cellar. Once inside, everything is set out ready. I use an old steel frame with the minimum components to almost function as a bike. No brakes, a down tube front gear lever and a front wheel which I wouldn’t even dare to take outside let alone on the road. There is a small low table with a speaker on, ready to take the laptop and a fan.

It only takes a moment to switch everything on, clip into my shoes, pop a bottle in and I’m away. Since starting back, I’ve been using the Sufferfest Videos and today I’m using Angels. The videos themselves are great, combining race/ride footage with some good music and riding instructions. Everything relates to Perceived Effort, which took a bit of getting used to. The first few times I used them, I was absolutely crucifying myself.

Most of the workout is 7 or 8 out of 10 and I was trying to ride out of my skin for a whole hour! After a little thought (and some very sore legs!), I decided to equate each effort with a particular heart rate. My maximum heart rate is 200 and for base building, I’m trying to stick to below 164, so I’m working on the idea of 6/10 being @150 – 155, 7/10 being @157, 8/10 being @162-164 and anything more being a sprint effort. It sounds complicated, but works for me in practice.

So I’m clipped in and pedaling.

Sometimes I feel tired and have to force myself to get on, other times I expect to struggle and find my legs feeling pretty good. This is one of those days. As the music tells me to ‘feel the groove and let my body move’ I’m pedaling easily. I look down and my legs look defined like a real cyclist, not the pasty sausages that started to dream of racing a couple of months ago. I breathe easily, watching the screen in front of me. The fan blows cold air over me as I am transported to an outdoor velodrome. I feather the pedals round lapping easily and enjoying the indy soundtrack. What was I worried about? This turbo lark is just so easy.

Having warmed up, the real riding starts. First I have 10 minutes of ‘over/under’ work from Paris Nice. I change up to the big ring 53 x 16 or 17 should do it. For my first ‘over’, I spin the pedals up to 100 rpm, watching the speed climb easily to 22 mph as my heart rate steadily drifts up. I manage to ride steadily at a heart rate of around 160. Soon enough, the minute is over and I let my pedaling slow to around 90rpm, my speed drops and my heart rate drifts down to about 155.

It feels easy and has a nice rhythm to it. For each ‘over’ set, I am with Luis Leon Sanchez on the attack. If only I looked half as smooth and powerful as him on the bike! For the ‘under’, I am watching Alberto Contador being worked over and finally dropped by a small group of mercenaries. The beat matches my pedaling and the time passes quickly.

Before I know it, I am in recovery mode and have 3 minutes of a breather. I change down into my lowest gear and let the pedals turn easily. I am watching a long steady mountain descent. The dance soundtrack tells me that ‘Heaven Can Wait’, but all too soon my recovery time is over and it’s time to hit the big ring again.

This time I am up for 8 minutes of climbing from Liege Bastogne Liege. I select 53 x 15 and grind out a slow cadence. My speed rises to 23mph as my heart rate stabilizes at about 157. My legs feel strong, but I know it only gets harder from here. The sound of a motorbike revving warns me of an attack as I change up and hit 25 mph. The pace varies from grinding away at 157 to breathing deeply to keep my heart rate below 164. Before long it is over and I have another block of easy recovery. By now I am glad of the fan although no longer aware of the air being cold at all.

My next section is from Paris Nice and I am alternating between seated and standing climbing. The pace initially feels easy compared to Liege, but gradually ramps up until I am going eyeballs out with Thomas Voeckler to a hypnotic techno beat. It feels good and I can’t believe that I’m so far on into the workout. Another recovery descent beckons.

Finally I am on Alp D’Huez. Cadence suggestions have gone out of the window now and I hit the base of the climb at a heart rate of 164. There are a series of attacks, each time I raise the pace still further yo-yoing between about 23 and 30 mph. I watch as the riders zig-zag across the road, particular sympathy is with Jerome Coppel desperately signaling for a drink from the team car. I push on, responding to each attack then groveling to recover in time for the next one.

By now I am breathing through my ears, but still strong. This has to help when it comes to racing!

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