If you’re gearing up for some serious road biking this spring, summer and fall, and need to get in shape for Vermont’s thigh-burning gap rides and centuries, you’ll want to get in bicycling shape sooner than later.
To help with some training tips, we checked in with Andrew Gardner, an experienced cyclist from Ripton, Vt., who competes on the ENGVT Cycling Team with fellow riders from Burlington to Boston. Gardner gave us his tips for developing the mental and physical stamina needed for some of Vermont’s challenging climbs and distance rides.
Getting ready for riding season should start before athletes get back on their bikes each spring. In addition to taking a few winter rides when the weather cooperates, Gardner says cycling is one sport where building strength before the season starts will pay dividends later. Stretching, yoga and core workouts that strengthen lower abdominal muscles will also help relieve strain on the lower back.
Cycling is a low-impact sport, so Gardner also recommends including some weight-bearing activity in the off-season like cross country skiing, hiking, lifting weights or running to help build bone density. While cycling is one of those sports in which you can be reasonably fit just by cycling lots of miles, a good cross-training program to build core strength will make riding the steeps a lot easier.
Ride a Bike that Fits
The majority of recreational riders aren’t riding bikes that suit their body type or size, Gardner says, and ride with their legs reaching too far (or not far enough) or with their upper body hunched over or too far away from the handlebars. It’s a common mistake and one that Gardner says is easy to fix by getting a proper fit at a qualified bike shop.
Riding a bike that fits makes a big difference for any level of rider, allowing the athlete to attack the hill more aggressively and efficiently.
Embrace the Interval
“As cyclists, we tend to ride where we’re comfortable,” Gardner says. “For gap rides, the trick is to get out of that comfort zone.”
Instead of pedaling at a sustained moderate pace, start introducing sustained bursts of speed into each ride and then recover, then repeat throughout a portion of the ride. You can also incorporate interval training in your runs, as part of crosstraining for the bike. This strengthens the muscles, improves aerobic capacity, and gets the muscles (and mind) used to going faster, farther. Experiencing the burn now, he says, will pay off later.
On Hills, Start Small
The more you ride the hills, the easier they become. If the bigger hills seem too fearsome, riders can work up to them by practicing on smaller hills. Before tackling the Middlebury Gap, Gardner enjoys practicing on a smaller hill in neighboring Weybridge, riding up and down repeatedly to acclimate to the varying pace and technique of climbing.
It may be sunny while you crank over the final crest of the Appalachian gap, but there’s no telling what the weather can be when you drop into Fayston or Buells Gore. Gardner prefers to overdress when covering distances.
“Anyone who lives in Vermont knows how precarious the weather is,” Gardner says. “I’ve gone over some gaps in the mountains in the sun and then found myself descending into a snow squall.” So bring at least a light long-sleeve layer if the temperatures might make a sudden swing.
Mind Over Matter
When you’re in the saddle and looking up at a dozen or more miles of climbing to the top of the gap, you can fight off those feelings of intimidation by breaking the climb into manageable pieces. Rather, for instance, than concentrating on the entire 1,734 feet of vertical gain on Smugglers’ Notch from Cambridge, focus on picking out landmarks that help you measure your progress.
“The biggest thing with gaps is that they’re more intimidating than they are difficult,” Gardner says. “The first key, psychologically, is to break them into pieces of hills.”
Above all, he says, keep pushing the pedals. “You’ll make it.”