This is the second in a series of articles on The British Continental this winter taking us under the often muddy skin of an elite cyclocross rider. Following 19-year-old GB cyclocross specialist Toby Barnes, who rides for the Cero Wheels – Cycle Division team, the series goes under the muddy skin of an elite cyclocross rider, from training to lifestyle and everything in between.
Although racing has only just returned after lockdown 2.0 in the UK, it has been in full steam ahead in Europe and our cyclocross contributor, Toby Barnes, has been making the most of it.
Leaving the competition in his wake as he won round one of the National Trophy Series in Cumbria, the perfect start to his title defence, Toby then headed overseas to prove he can compete against the world’s best. With national selection secured, Toby showed he was worth the pick securing 13th at the U23 European Championships in the Netherlands, followed by a top 10 result at the first round of the World Cup in the Czech Republic. Now just a couple of days away from his first senior representation for Great Britain in Namur, Belgium, we take a detailed look into the training required to race at this level.
Building a base
Having taken a two-week break straight after the national cyclocross championships back in January, Toby got to work building up his mileage for what, at the time, was supposed to be a breakthrough road season. Despite two early season Nat B crit wins, it was clear, with a global pandemic taking hold, that the season would soon be grinding to a halt one way or another.
Mentally it’s pretty tough to keep training hard and with a rigid structure when you have no idea what you’re aiming for!Toby Barnes
Working with his coach at Loughborough Performance Coaching, March and April were a difficult couple of months, as they were for most racers in the UK, not knowing how the season would unfold and therefore how to structure their training. For Toby and his coach, however, the decision was made at the end of April:
“Phill and I were just trying to take things day by day, keeping the racing form I was in going, but you can only do that for so long. Mentally it’s pretty tough to keep training hard and with a rigid structure when you have no idea what you’re aiming for! After it was clear racing was not returning soon, we made the call at the end of April that it was all eyes on ‘cross.”
With the promise of any kind of road season becoming bleaker and bleaker, Toby realigned his training to get ready for the cyclocross season, which at the time had a lot more chance of going ahead, and this seems to have been the right call.
“If road races happened, I’d have still done them, as I did with a few time trials in August, as any kind of competition is better than nothing. But ‘cross became the focus, so I started running and got back in the gym – well in our home gym in the garage!”
Now back at his family home, with university done for the year, Toby worked closely with his coach in Loughborough and the wider support team, namely the strength and conditioning coach, to put the pieces in place for a successful winter.
You want to get your conditioning done early, so in later blocks you can make the running elements more specific, or beneficial, to cross racing, without the risk of injuryPhill Maddocks
Running in April might, to some, seem like overkill, but Toby’s coach, Phill Maddocks, explained:
“People may question why you need to be running in April if the season is still a good six months away, and the muddy running races even further down the road. But for me, you want to get your conditioning done early, so in later blocks you can make the running elements more specific, or beneficial, to cross racing, without the risk of injury.’’
It was a similar story with Toby’s gym work.
“I had limited experience in the gym, but with my strength and conditioning coach at the Loughborough Cycling Academy I was able to focus firstly on technique with light weights, and towards the middle of the summer moved onto more specific exercises aimed at torque development, which is key for cross.
“Traditionally people may complete low cadence drills for this, but together as a team we discussed this, looked at the science, and concluded that the gym would be of greater benefit’’ explains Toby. It’s an attitude which reveals his own understanding and the fact he’s fully bought into what he’s doing.
Toby also noted that he was riding off-road on his cross bike once a week from May, highlighting that even for an accomplished off-road rider it can beneficial for skill development and maintenance. He also pointed out that it’s fun, an important factor when you’re training by yourself during a lockdown.
The Nitty Gritty
Readers will probably be wondering what the makeup of a typical week looked like for Toby in his preparation for the season, or what his key sessions were, so we’re very grateful that Toby and Phill were very open when we spoke to them. Phill said:
“There was a specific focus to each block of training throughout the summer, all with the aim to get Toby race ready by October but peaking in December and January when we knew the bigger races would come. The blocks progressed from weeks of long hours really focusing on Toby’s aerobic systems, to anaerobic blocks and finally more race specific blocks as we approached October.’’
“Having a focus to each block allowed me to really keep motivated on the training and see improvements week by week. With no racing for such a prolonged period, having these short-term goals were crucial to keeping me motivated.’’
What were Toby’s favourite sessions, we wondered?
“In our earlier blocks, I really enjoyed one of my more staple sessions, of 4 times 8 minutes with around equal recovery. Although we completed these on the road at this time, I knew it was just like smashing out a single cross race lap, and that was really satisfying. Getting to see my improvements, week by week, month by month was also really motivating, but also comforting, knowing I was moving in the right direction.’’
With sessions already becoming very race-specific, the final stage of preparation for the season saw Toby moving one of his weekly interval sessions off-road, as well as more focused skills work.
“I always look forward to these off-road sessions, mixing tricky conditions, tight corners and running, all into specific sessions such as repeats of 6 seconds sprint, 14 seconds easy. I am also lucky enough to have had a strong group to complete these sessions with, when restrictions allowed, helping me push even harder.’’
This is the first time I’ve really been able to have a normal off-season and full build purely focusing on the winter seasonToby Barnes
As with most young cross riders, Toby would have usually spent the summer road racing. Had this pandemic allowed for better preparation for the cyclocross season than in most years?
“For sure, this is the first time I’ve really been able to have a normal off-season and full build purely focusing on the winter season. Although it’s felt odd, it has really allowed me to improve my weaknesses and the benefits of this are clear in my race results.’’
“Toby’s improvement has been pretty impressive, as for a rider of his calibre you often don’t see big jumps. That being said, it wasn’t a huge surprise, despite having successes both on and off-road. His training mileage had been relatively low before 2020, so we were able to bring up his volume from 10 hours a week to a consistent 20 hours in his endurance phases.’’
And with outstanding results in his first two months of racing, it would seem all this hard work is paying off for Toby as heads towards his first senior World Cup race.
In our next article, we will investigate how Toby and his coaching team prepare for big races, from course analysis to tapering and nutrition.
A week in training
Finally, we asked Toby to outline a typical week’s training to gain extra insights into how he has progressed to be one of the country’s best cyclocross riders.
Monday – I would always have Monday as a complete rest day from my bike or the gym. Not only did this allow my body to recover from what was usually a tough weekend, but I feel it’s important to give yourself that mental break and hunger to go again.
Tuesday – This tended to be one of my two key sessions in the week. I was always feeling fresh after my rest day on Monday so able to deliver my all. An example of this session was a very short hill loop we have in Loughborough. I’d fully attack the hill, around 20 seconds in length, before completing the loop very easy in around 50 seconds, ready to attack the hill again. This is an excellent session for cyclocross as it works on that repeatability of short efforts and really teaches you to hurt and push through the pain.
I’d usually finish the day off with a gym session. Completing this on the same day as my bike sessions allows my easy days to be completely easy, and for my legs to recover in preparation for the next session
Wednesday – I would complete a long easy ride here, usually in the range of 4-5 hours. Nutrition would be important on these longer days to make sure I could keep recovering from the previous days sessions.
Thursday – I generally had a choice on a Thursday. This was another recovery day, however I was encouraged to complete a roller session if I felt my legs were feeling okay. You need to keep varying cadence in cyclocross races, so roller sessions are a really good way to keep practicing that high cadence.
Friday – Similar to Tuesday, this would be my second hard session of the week. Depending on the time of year I could be completing VO2 intervals on the road such as 6 times 3 minutes or race specific cyclocross sessions on the grass.
Saturday/Sunday – My weekends were aimed at endurance riding with little in the way of specific sessions. I would always try to do one of these on my cross bike, throwing in specific skills where I could. This was a great time to try out new routes, both mud and gravel, to really keep the longer miles entertaining.
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