tour de france, cycling workout, stationary bike

Get Fitter By Riding Flats

It can't be all climbs, all the time: Here, making a flat-road workout work for you.

At 237.5 kilometers (about 147.6 miles), Stage 4 of this year’s Tour de France from Saumur to Limoges was the longest of the race. To some, the largely flat route may seem like a blessing, a refuge from hard hills and tough terrain. But the pros know flat roads are no rest period.

In fact, on the road, hill-free terrain is typically windier. And tail-, head-, and crosswinds can all be stressful to the peloton. If you’re indoors? The biggest challenge is simple: “You have to pedal continually,” says Chris Carmichael, founder of Carmichael Training Systems, Inc., a former former USA Cycling coach and Tour de France competitor. There’s less opportunity to coast down rolling hills; and there are no long descents.

But this also means you’re in control: “There’s an old adage in cycling that it’s not the course that makes the race, but rather how your ride it,” says Carmichael.

On a flat road, two critical skills can make or break your game, he says: power at your lactate threshold (the max intensity you can hold for a prolonged period of time) and your ability to accelerate quickly.

Fortunately, there are cornerstone workouts to master both. “These aren’t very exciting or sexy workouts,” says Carmichael. “But they are incredibly effective.”

Rotate them into your routine once a week if you’re new to cycling; every other day if you’re a regular; and on back-to-back days if you’re advanced.

You’ll not only be able to ride faster and up your power output at your max, you’ll also be able to produce more power and speed before hitting your limit, says Carmichael. The result: Being able to hold a specific pace with less effort, he says. (A seemingly easier workout.)

Start here:

FOR POWER: A 3x10-minute interval workout

Warm-up:

  • 2 minutes of easy pedaling (RPE 5 out of 10)
  • 1 minute of fast pedaling (RPE 10 out of 10)
  • 1 minute of easy pedaling
  • 1 minute of hard effort
  • 1 minute of easy pedaling
  • 1 minute of hard effort
  • 3 minutes of easy pedaling

Main Set: Cycle at a perceived exertion of about 8 out of 10 and a cadence of about 90 RPM for 10 minutes. Your breathing should be deep, controlled, and labored, says Carmichael. “You should be able to speak in three- to four-word phrases. If you can only eek out a single word, can’t speak at all, or your breathing is uncontrollable panting, you’re going too hard.” Rest at a perceived exertion of about 4 out of 10 and a cadence of 45 RPM for 5 minutes. Repeat three times. As you grow stronger, increase the duration up to 3x20-minute intervals.

Cool-down: Lightly pedal for 5 to 10 minutes.

FOR LEG SPEED: A straight speed interval

Warm-up:

  • 2 minutes of easy pedaling (RPE 5 out of 10)
  • 1 minutes of fast pedaling (RPE 10 out of 10)
  • 1 minutes of easy pedaling
  • 1 minutes of hard effort
  • 1 minutes of easy pedaling
  • 1 minutes of hard effort
  • 3 minutes of easy pedaling

Workout: Sprint all-out (a perceived exertion of 10 out of 10 at 100+ RPM) for 20 seconds then pedal easy (a perceived exertion of 1-3 out of 10 at 50 to 70 RPM) for 40 seconds. Repeat. Start with 5 minutes of 20/40 speed intervals, progressing to 10 minutes; or break the work into three sets of five minutes of 20/40 intervals.

“Think of it as ‘revving the gear’ and then letting the gear or bike gradually slow down before revving it again,” says Carmichael. “In the beginning it’s easy, but it gets progressively harder to continue.”

Cool-down: Lightly pedal for 5 to 10 minutes.