Pros who take on the Tour de France, kids who first take off the training wheels and you -- whether you race competitively or ride recreationally -- all get faster on a bicycle in the same way: by riding harder or faster than normal, recovering and then repeating the process again and again. Cyclists call this interval training, and serious ones do variations of it twice a week in the weeks before they want to be at their best.
Mark off a mile of flat, lightly traveled road and time how long it takes you to cover it at your typical riding speed. Return to the start and increase your effort enough so that you finish the mile in 20 percent less time. Turn around when it’s safe, ride easily to the start and repeat the faster-than-normal effort two or three more times. Beginning cyclists benefit most from faster-mile intervals; in fact, PMTS.org, an organization created to help ski instructors help their students, suggests these intervals for skiers who bicycle in the off-season as a form of cross-training.
Find a gradual climb of at least a half mile that is steep enough so that you would stand to ride the majority of it at training pace. Ride these intervals as hard as you can in a gear that drops your cadence into the 50 to 70 rpm range while still remaining seated. You’ll be tempted to stand, but standing will not develop the same degree of power. Instead, shift to an easier gear if your rpm drops so low that your pedaling loses its fluidity, but always handle a bigger gear than normal. Pedal easily down the climb and begin again once you feel recovered. Shoot for five of these intervals in a training session, but realize that the longer the climb, the tougher it will be to reach that number.
Roger Iddles, 2006 UCI World Masters Champion in both the time trial and road race, believes his version of Russian-steps intervals helps prepare cyclists for the rigors of racing, especially time trials. After a sufficient warmup, go "flat out" for one minute and then pedal easily for nine minutes. In the second interval, increase the flat-out time to two minutes and reduce the recovery to eight minutes. Continue to add one minute of all-out riding and decrease the break by the same until you reach five minutes of both all-out and recovery riding. Iddles then continues what he considers essentially an endurance ride, but you may feel trashed and need to begin your cool down.
Like Iddles, Dean Golich, a coach whose clients have won national, Olympic and world championship medals, believes intervals are most effective when you go “flat out”; therefore, he advises you not to dose these five-minute efforts so the speed is steady. Instead, you go so fast at the start that holding that speed for five minutes is impossible. What Golich stresses you hold, however, is the same degree of effort, which you can do as your speed decreases by shifting to progressively easier gears and maintaining a “reasonable cadence” -- at least 90 rpm. Pedal easily for about five minutes between efforts and build up to the point where you can handle six to eight intervals. All-out intervals are intense, so you need to get proper rest and one or two recovery rides between sessions.
Jonathan Vaughters, former pro and current manager of the Garmin-Cervelo professional cycling team, recommends shortening the time of the intervals and the recovery to increase intensity. Because the pace in road races and criteriums follows a “fast/slow pattern” that is much tougher to endure than a hard, steady effort, ride hard for 10 seconds, “float” for 20 seconds and continue this pattern for up to 20 minutes. While 10 seconds does not seem a long time to go hard, fatigue accumulates, so much so that Vaughters advises to do the first few hard efforts at about 80 percent effort. He also suggests this workout be done once a week during the month before the racing season.