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The Life of a Pro Cyclist

By Rick Scott

“It’s just like riding a bike.” How many times have you heard that said? There is nothing easy about riding a bicycle competitively. Riding professionally is a demanding lifestyle that virtually requires a 365-day, 24-hour commitment and sacrifice. With salaries nowhere near what athletes command in the big four sports – baseball, football, basketball & hockey - the reality is far from the glamorous lives we assume all professional athletes live. Cyclists literally eat cycling, sleep cycling, travel cycling and live cycling every single day.

The 136 elite athletes competing in this year’s Amgen Tour of California typically ride their bikes twice as many miles as the average person drives their car each year. Pro cyclists put between 20,000-25,000 training and racing miles into their legs per annum. That’s a whole lot of time in the saddle so like athletes in any sport, it begins with training.

Training

Pro cyclists spend an average of two to six hours per day training. Most of that time is spent riding, but they might spend an hour in the gym a few days a week lifting weights to build leg and core strength, especially during the off-season months (mid-October to mid-January). The athletes receive a training schedule from their team or personal coach customized for the type of cyclist they are – a powerful sprinter, a lithe climber or an all-rounder who does both with equal aplomb - and the type of races in which they will compete in and prioritize during their season – one-day races or multi-day stage races like the Amgen Tour of California.

In the initial phases of training, riders will spend many hours building their aerobic engine on long rides at about 60% of their maximum heart rate. The pace is steady and relatively easy, thus they can literally pedal all day without feeling taxed. This is known as base training as it forms the athlete’s essential foundation of fitness. After a month or two of base rides, the riders add moderate efforts at 75-80% of their maximum heart rate in the form of intervals, which vary in length and intensity from as short as explosive 10-second sprint efforts to as long as one-hour efforts on a long hill. The pre-race phase involves intervals on hills and flat terrain at high intensity – 90-100% of maximum heart rate – that are typically 2-15 minutes in length. As the intensity goes up, the volume (or length) of the rides typically decreases.

To measure their efforts, cyclists usually wear a heart rate monitor and most pros today utilize a power meter, which measures power output in terms of wattage. Experienced pros often know intuitively how hard they are riding based upon feel.

During the off-season, pros take anywhere from 1-4 weeks off the bike, which is as much mental as it is physical. During the break, they usually do some type of exercise. Mountain biking, running, hiking and cross-country skiing are some of the cross-training activities preferred by cyclists, which they may continue for a period when they return to more structured training.

Eating

To fuel training and racing 100 or more miles per day as in the Amgen Tour of California requires wholesome, healthful foods and a disciplined diet. Pros typically consume an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, plenty of carbohydrates from pasta, rice and potatoes, and protein to foster muscle growth, repair and recovery. “When I’m doing long rides or if I’m in the middle of a hard block of training, I eat more carbohydrates. When I’m going easy, I eat less,” explained George Hincapie, former USPRO Road Race Champion and Olympian who now races for High Road Sports and was Lance Armstrong’s loyal teammate for all seven of his Tour de France victories. “I don’t eat junk or bad fats. Thankfully my wife (Melanie) is a great cook and she prepares my meals when I’m home. I don’t really drink hard alcohol, but I do have a glass of wine almost daily with dinner.”

Three-time USPRO Time Trial Champion David Zabriskie of Team Slipstream, the only American to have won a stage in all three of the Grand T ours – Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana – concurred saying, “My wife prepares organic and healthy foods when I’m home. I wouldn’t eat a piece of chocolate cake if it was offered to me, but being on the road traveling, well let’s just say it’s harder to resist the desire for that beast known as fast foods.”

Riders need to eat and drink on the bike to maintain proper hydration as well as keep their energy sources up. During training, riders consumer energy bars that are rich in carbohydrates and contain protein. They also down packets of energy gels that provide a quick jolt of carbs and calories. Some will indulge in fig bars or slices of carrot or banana cake. “I have a rule that I always follow: never go hungry on the bike,” revealed Hincapie. Athletes that compete in multi-day races know that what they eat today fuels their race tomorrow.

There is more than just water in their bottles. Pros drink electrolyte beverages and sometimes even a caffeinated soft drink. During races, the soft drink provides a boost for the final hour of racing. In the feedbags you see handed off to the riders during long races are energy bars, gels, fig bars, small pastries, and easy to eat sandwiches.

Pros typically burn up to 5,000 calories during each stage of the Amgen Tour of California (the average diet consists of 2,000-3,000 calories per day) so not only is replenishing their resources vital, but you’d imagine they can eat whatever they want and never worry about it. However, riders have been known to become obsessive about their weight with some developing eating disorders. Many weigh their food to aid in portion control. Pros may weigh themselves after a stage to know how much food and fluids they need to consume to get back to their racing weight. During the off-season, riders may weigh 3-10 pounds more than their racing weight and most don’t fret about it because they know they’ll trim down when they add intensity to their training regimen.

Pros may consult with a doctor or a nutritionist to carefully map a course of vitamins and nutritional supplements making sure the items fall within the rigid guidelines of permitted substances.

Recovery

Hard training or racing days are followed by recovery rides: short, easy rides that enable the body to recover from the previous day’s effort by getting the legs spinning and the blood flowing. Hincapie and Zabriskie both stated the need for at least eight hours of sleep nightly. Hincapie also tries to squeeze in short power naps when his schedule permits after long training days.

After training and races, riders usually down a recovery drink of carbohydrates and protein followed by a complete meal to stimulate recovery. During races, the teams provide a massage therapist to help the rider work the lactic acid out of the legs and alleviate the aches and pains earned as badges of honor from the day’s efforts. When at home, pros usually do self-massage or may use a foam roller or another massage aid. Riders may elevate their legs to let the toxins and lactate drain. There’s an old cycling adage that many pros follow: “Don’t walk if you can stand. Don’t stand if you can sit. Don’t sit if you can lay down.”

Lifestyle

With races that begin in mid-January and finish in mid-October, cycling has perhaps the longest and arguably the most grueling season of any professional sport. With such a long season, professional endurance athletes must carefully pace themselves and give their bodies and minds the rest they need in order to maintain sharp physical and mental fitness, focus and motivation. One factor that takes a toll during the year is travel. Both Hincapie and Zabriskie spend most of their seasons racing in Europe so they have homes in Girona, Spain, which minimizes the distance they travel to and from races. They spend the off-season at home in the U.S.

“I hate traveling the most. It’s a pain and hard to recover from, especially the long trips,” said Zabriskie, who wears compression stockings on his legs while flying to enhance recovery.

“We typically fly in the day before a race; earlier if it’s one of the Classics,” explained Hincapie. “Inter-Europe flights are shorter, usually around an hour-and-a-half. The races are long. The winning move typically doesn’t happen in the first hour so you have time to open up the legs after flying in the day before.”

Although pros are traveling to ride and race their bikes in beautiful, exotic and historic destinations all over the world, they seldom see anything. “We travel in a bubble. We’re usually so tired that we only see the hotels, airports and race courses,” revealed Zabriskie, who admitted that he hasn’t ever had a “real” vacation.

Hincapie, who is entering his 15th season as a pro, enthusiastically mentioned traveling on off-season vacations with Melanie and their young daughter, Julia, to such “regular” locales as New York City. Both Hincapie and Zabriskie are joined by their wives whenever possible on the road, especially when they spend long periods of time anchored in Girona. But sometimes it’s just not possible for them to make the trip. “Leaving the girls is tough and gets tougher each year,” said Hincapie.

While on the road with the team, the athletes have to make promotional appearances and attend dinners and events with sponsors. Sometimes they have interviews to do with the media and attend daily team meetings and race strategy sessions the night before and the morning of races. These necessary duties and obligations obviously cut into the riders’ time to rest, recover and prepare, but it is part of the job.

Pros approach their job responsibly and adapt a lifestyle conducive to their athletic career. When Hincapie’s cell phone rings during training rides, he tells people he’s in the office. Hincapie and Zabriskie eat most of their meals at home when off the road, although Hincapie will dine out sporadically with friends. Zabriskie said, “Randi (his wife) & I stay in. I never really went out much so I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything.” Zabriskie is in bed nightly by 11:30 PM. Hincapie doesn’t mind occasionally hanging out late with friends, which might be as late as 1 AM, however “if there’s nothing going on, I might go to bed at 10 PM, but I’m usually asleep before midnight.”

When home in Greenville, South Carolina, Hincapie often makes afternoon visits to the Hincapie Sportswear headquarters to check-in on the flourishing cycling and triathlon clothing business he and his brother, Rich, have created along with Pla d’Adet, a performance training community named after Hincapie’s 2005 Tour de France stage win. “It’s important to look-in regularly on the business, but that’s what makes being in Girona easier. There are less distractions and it’s all about training and recovery and resting after races,” said the proud father who wakes up at 7:30 AM every morning to tend to his daughter. “The mornings are my time with Julia. I check email, help her get dressed and have breakfast, drop her off at school and head out to train around 9:15 AM. The rest of the day, Melanie handles all the household duties and prepares our meals. I really owe her when this (his cycling career) is all over,” he said with a laugh.

Around the Zabriskie household in Salt Lake City, Utah, they share the daily duties. They are expecting their first child this May and he is excited about fatherhood. During his downtime, Zabriskie spends time with Randi and his Xbox 360. The 29-year-old makes it a point to keep up with politics and read the newspaper daily. His passion is the newly formed Yield To Life organization (www.yieldtolife.org), which promotes safe roads for cyclists. Zabriskie seriously injured his leg when he was hit by a car while training in 2004. The rider with an off-kilter, dry sense of humor is clear about what he loves most about the life of a professional cyclist: “We get to ride around on bikes all day. It doesn’t get any cooler than that.”

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Rick Scott is president of Great Scott P.R.oductions, an entertainment and sports public relations, marketing and management boutique. He can be contacted through www.greatscottpr.com.