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How to train for a spring classic

The Spring Classics are the hardest and harshest of races. Exciting and unpredictable in equal measure, the Classics are a fight on a bike. During spring in northern Europe, the sun sometimes shines hot but often the wind blows bitterly cold, accompanied by driving rain, sleet, or even snow. Only the toughest survive the callous cobbles and stinging climbs and those that do are hailed as cycling’s hard men and women. But how do you train to ride them?

Threshold power

One feature of the Spring Classics is distance. Milan-San-Remo, the oldest of the Monuments is 291 kilometres, or 185 miles-long, which translates to seven or eight hours in the saddle – even when the average speed of the pros is in excess of 40km/h.

This kind of distance requires a good endurance base but training just below or above your anaerobic threshold is important too. “A rider's anaerobic or lactate threshold marks their maximum sustainable effort level for about an hour - think of it as riding at a ‘somewhat hard’ pace,” says Craig Stevenson of Vitfor.  The body can only sustain this level for a limited time before we're forced to slow down. At this point your body is producing more lactate (or lactic acid as it’s commonly called) than you can get rid of and your legs hurt like hell. But why is ‘threshold’ training important for races such as the Classics? 

Think it of as breaking through a ceiling. By consistently working around your threshold your body adapts and, over time, that threshold increases. A consequence of is this is that you become better and more efficient at clearing the lactate your body produces, which in turn allows you to ride harder for longer without feeling the burn. So when you’re faced with several hours of hard riding having a relatively high threshold is a very good thing.

Typical threshold intervals

Warm up:  5 < 10 min steady riding followed with a 5 min progressive. (Building the effort level gradually from moderate to somewhat hard.) 

Main set 1: 4 x 10 minutes at 90 < 95% of your FTP with a 3 < 8 min recovery


Main set 2: 3 x 20 minutes at 90 < 95% of your FTP with a 3 < 8 min recovery 

Warm down: 5 < 10 min steady riding 

Anaerobic efforts

The Classics are characterised by frequent changes or surges in pace, particularly as the riders approach the shortest of the bergs (Belgian for hill) or murs (Dutch for hill). To stay in contention the pros have to be resilient to these short sharp bursts of speed – the Paterberg used in the Tour of Flanders takes less than 60 seconds for the fastest riders to climb. Doing this 30 or 40 times in a race is truly punishing.

“The work you do in training has to be specific to the demands of the race,” says Stevenson. If the race features short, sharp intervals then that’s what you’ve got to practice. Doing repeated anaerobic or maximal efforts - as opposed to max power efforts, which are six seconds or less - is the only way to get good at this kind of riding. To have most effect these kind of intervals have to be repeated over and over.

Typical anaerobic efforts

Warm up: 5 < 10 min steady riding followed with a 5 min progressive riding (building the effort level gradually from moderate to somewhat hard) followed by 3-5 sprints of 5 sec with a 25 sec recovery, each harder than the last

Main Set 1 (moderate):  4 sets of 10 x 20/40s (ride very hard for 20 seconds, rest for 40 seconds repeat) with 5 < 8min between sets


Main Set 2 (hard): 1 set of 40 x 20/40s (ride very hard for 20 seconds, rest for 40 seconds repeat 40 times)

Warm down: 5 < 10 min steady riding 

VO2 Max efforts

The cobbled ‘sectors’ of Paris-Roubaix, Gent–Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders are infamous for the pain they inflict on the peloton. The cobbles are notorious not just for their treachery but because they demand a sustained effort for a relatively long period of time. But the only way to approach these punishing straights, such as the Carrefour de l'Arbre, is to attack them with all your might - the best riders easily sustain 500 or 600 watts for several minutes and appear to float over the stones. But being able to ride balls out for up to three kilometres takes some effort in training.

“Riding hard on the flat is something many amateur riders find tough,” says Stevenson. I often see cyclists going for it on climbs but finding it hard to stay in the wheels on the flat. Once again specificity is the key.”

Typical VO2 Max efforts

Warm up: 5 < 10min steady riding followed by 5 min progressive riding (building the effort level gradually from moderate to somewhat hard) followed by 3-5 sprints of 5 sec with a 25 sec recovery, each harder than the last

Main set: 3 x 3 min Z5 (‘somewhat hard’) efforts, with a short 60 sec recovery. Take a full recovery of 5 - 8 min then repeat x 2-4 times

Warm down: 5 < 10 min steady riding

Ready for the classics? Here are the dates you need:

Saturday 2nd March
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad- Gent, Belgium

Sunday 3rd March

Saturday 9th March
Strade Bianche- Tuscany, Italy

Saturday 23rd March
Milan-San Remo

Friday 29th March
E3 Harelbeke- Belgium

Sunday 31st March

Sunday 7th April
Tour of Flanders- Belgium

Sunday 14th April

Sunday 21st April
Amstel Gold Race- Netherlands

Wednesday 24th April
La Fleche Wallonne- Belgium

Sunday 28th April

Feeling inspired? Why not try your hand at tackling cobbles, or check out some last minute training sessions you can squeeze in after work.

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