Training with the pros: Andy Tennant's track cycling tips
World Championship team pursuit contender on building form, eating right and staying motivated
Ahead of the 2016 Rio Olympics, Great Britain’s track cyclists return to the scene of the incredible triumphs of London 2012 for the UCI Track Cycling World Championships.
The great and good of track cycling will hit the Lee Valley VeloPark boards looking to test their form and lay down markers for the summer.
And it’s not just the Olympics British Cycling are looking ahead to, with the announcement of a £200,000 legacy programme by the team behind putting the World Championships on in London.
Aimed at inspiring more youngsters to get involved in cycling, the hope is another major tournament on home boards will help to inspire the next generation of gold medallists.
But how can you become a good track cyclist? We asked Andy Tennant, a former world championship gold medal winner bidding for a place in the Olympic team pursuit squad exactly that.
So read on for an insight into Great Britain’s men’s endurance squad preparations and Tennant’s tips on how to make it in the sport.
Hit the road, Jack
One of the biggest misnomers when it comes to track cycling is the belief that to improve you have to spend hours on the boards.
In fact, Tennant explains, it is the complete opposite – the road is for the base miles and the track is simply to top up the specifics.
“People think we train a lot more on the track than we actually do," he explains. “But to be honest, the track is more for fine-tuning.
“With track, when you’re in the wheels, it’s all about your threshold power and how you’re able to recover. That’s really the major way of effecting your VO2.
“We do similar efforts on the road, to compensate when we’re not on the track, but on the track we do all the speed and power work, such as standing starts and short, sharp efforts.
“We also do longer, endurance efforts like rolling five kilometres where we’ll overpace. You over-gear or under-gear, so it’s either working the cadence or if it’s over-geared it’s usually a bit easier."
And what of the training on the road? “We just do a lot of repeated ten-minute efforts on the roads and at training camps because when we are on the track we either go at race pace or above race pace," Tennant explains.
And there’s also the turbo, for short, flat-out efforts of 30 seconds or one minute, ‘because on the turbo you don’t have to worry about the distractions even on the track – whether it’s other riders or holding your line etc’.
Being part of the British Cycling system gives Tennant and his team-mates a distinct advantage over the rest of us – namely full support staff (not that we can begrudge them that – they’ve worked bloody hard to get there!)
But it doesn’t mean amateurs or beginners can’t also analyse their own performances and set markers for improvement.
“They [the team] look at all the power outputs on the track, but they will be analysed by the sports scientists rather than us riders," Tennant says. “They’ll take speed grabs, and look at how you are condition-wise.
“When we’re on the road, though, it will be a ten-minute effort where we’re looking to hold a set amount of watts. If you can hold 410 watts, as opposed to 390, then it’s easy to see whether you’re getting better.
“But we do look at numbers, more so on the road because I’ve got easier access to it with the SRM power meters. On the track, people are there to do it for you – all we have to concentrate on is lap splits and going as fast as you can. When you’re racing you don’t have that power data, you’re just watching your coach walking the line."
Round and round and round and…
Another important factor in training, of course, is motivation – to a beginner, going round and round in circles may not seem the most inspiring way to spend an afternoon in the saddle.
But that, Tennant explains, is where only doing the specifics on the track comes into its own.
He says: “We don’t spend too much time on the track, but then the efforts we do are so hard you don’t have time to get bored.
“You have to remember the team pursuit is only four kilometres. The most efforts we’ll do are five kilometres. Even if it’s a points race, or that sort of stuff, there’s a purpose.
“Whenever you’re on the track the key is to utilise it, I’d say. We never go on the track just to ride around – that’s what we’d do on the road.
“Standing starts, sprints, lap splits – whenever we’re on the track there’s always something we’re working on. Most people have limited track time, so when you’re on the track it’s really important to make the most of it."
Food for thought
So that’s the training covered, but that’s only half the battle – you also need to eat right, of course, and Tennant believes it can be slightly easier for a track cyclist than a roadie.
“On the track you just burn carbohydrate," he says. “You don’t use any fat as a fuel at all because the efforts are so intense.
“It’s relatively similar with the road though, to be honest. On the intense training days you up your carbohydrate intake and on the easier days you reduce it. Protein content stays quite high – trying to take two grams of protein per kilo. I do that on the road too, because there you’re trying to maintain muscle mass whereas on the track you’re trying to build it.
“You don’t want to be under-fuelled, but it’s easy to over-fuel too so there’s a fine balance – but you’re not having to constantly manage your weight like a road rider would."
Following recipes is another way to manage your food intake, Tennant adds, buoyed by working with David Dunne at Team Wiggins – Dunne posts many recipes on his Twitter and Facebook pages.
“From there you can adjust the carbohydrate intake but the protein pretty much stays constant," Tennant adds. “It’s the carbohydrate content that varies daily depending on the effort.
“On the track, you’re probably only training properly for 20 minutes but you’re working so hard. When you get back on the road you start doing a few empty rides to kick-start that metabolism again."
Team pursuit is just one string to Tennant’s bow, meanwhile, with the Wolverhampton-born rider also up for selection for the individual pursuit in London (though it is no longer an Olympic event, so won’t be on the cards in Rio).
Like female counterpart Jo Rowsell, though, Tennant admits the individual pursuit is a very different beast compared to team pursuit.
“It’s so easy to go out too hard," he admits. “You’re so used to going out at 12-7 or 12-5, that you find yourself going out for the individual pursuit too fast.
“Because at Great Britain we don’t do any IP training – we only train for the Olympic event [i.e. Team Pursuit] – quite often the first standing start you do will be the day before or, if there are no days in between events, you pretty much go straight into it.
“I never do any specific efforts for the individual pursuit, it’s just a case of doing the event and having a look at how you got on.
“You are conscious in your mind that you have to go slower, but you get into that gear – you tend to ride a smaller gear, and I’ll be knocking maybe a 106 in the individual pursuit whereas it will be a 112 in the team pursuit, and there’s quite a drastic difference between how easy it is to get them up to speed – so it is very easy to go out too quick.
“It’s almost a case of finding that fine balance. You can utilise that effort of going out fast, but you can also do too much damage to yourself too quickly. Sometimes you get it right and sometimes you can get it drastically wrong."
Where to start
That’s the dos and don’ts of track cycling covered then, so how do you get involved? Tennant suggests finding an outdoor track first, and progressing from there.
“The benefit now is that we have new velodromes everywhere – Derby being the latest example of one which has just opened," he says.
“But the first thing to do is try to find an outdoor track near you – that’s what I did. It’s different from indoor, but it’s a good place to start.
“Most clubs – for example the Wolverhampton Wheelers, which was my local one – will have members with fixed wheel track bikes you can have a go on.
“You can also get more riding – the Manchester sessions can get very busy, which is good that everyone wants to give it a go but obviously bad at the same time."
Then it’s time to step it up, with Tennant highly recommending taster sessions at the velodromes.
“If you want to go to an indoor velodrome, then you have the taster sessions – book yourself onto one of those and go from there," he adds. “Manchester will provide you with the bike and the kit too, while some clubs will book the track for a few hours too – the Wolverhampton Wheelers used to do it at Christmas time.
“I think the taster sessions most velodromes put on are a great way of getting involved though."
Andy Tennant has recently been appointed as a PedalSure Ambassador. PedalSure cover you and your bike, and uniquely their policies cover personal injury, paying out even if an accident is your fault. They also cover amateur racing including track cycling.