Training with the pros: Graham Briggs (Rapha Condor CC)

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Training with the pros: Graham Briggs (Rapha Condor CC)

Former Elite Series champion on power, goal setting, and the 'Donny chaingang'

With December just days away, winter has well and truly begun, and many riders will be struggling with the change of season.

Faced with shorter days, longer nights, and weather conditions that can often provide a disincentive to ride, many will abandon their bikes in the months until spring.

Pro cyclists have no option but to keep pedalling through winter. So how do they make it through to the start of the new season? And what might the amateur rider learn from their efforts?

Graham Briggs has mixed core work, cyclo-cross, and chaingang rides since returning to the saddle  on November 1 after a three-week break. pic: ©Roz Jones

Graham Briggs has been at the sharp end of the domestic peloton for six years, enjoying successful stints with Rapha Condor, with whom he won the Elite Circuit Series, and Team Raleigh. Having left the Nottingham squad at the end of September, he has rejoined former manager, John Herety, and will ride for Rapha Condor CC until the end of the year, and with Rapha Condor JLT from January 1, 2014.

Take a break

Briggs was far from alone this year in taking a complete break from the bike at the end of a hectic season. Hanging up the wheels for the early part of winter has long been a tradition for professional and amateur alike, but with the season starting far earlier for the paid man, and the sportive calendar drastically broadening the scope of events available to the enthusiast, most now take only a few weeks off, if at all.

My season finished after the Monsall Hill Climb on October 6. I had a holiday after that. It was a complete break from the bike

“My season finished after the Monsall Hill Climb on October 6. I had a holiday after that. It was a complete break from the bike,” he recalls. After three weeks on a cruise ship with gym work, table tennis, and the occasional game of football his only physical outlet, Briggs admits that he was dreading getting back on the bike.

Since returning to the saddle on November 1, however, he says he has being pleasantly surprised by how fresh he has felt, easing himself back into the saddle with rides of up to four hours, punctuated with a café stop, “but at a good pace”. The Yorkshireman has also mixed up his training loops, seeking more demanding workouts from tougher routes, “rather than having to press on the pedals”.

Briggs is often to be found at the sharp end of a crit race, and after a three-week break at the end of the season, has eased himself back into the saddle with cafe rides. pic: ©Roz Jones

The “Donny chaingang”

Briggs is also a member of the “Donny chaingang”, a varying line-up of local riders that often contains some of Britain’s best professionals, including Team Sky’s Ben Swift, double Olympic gold medalist, Ed Clancy, and the Downing brothers, who will ride next year with the new NFTO team.

“The Saturday one is known as a bit of a rip up and a race,” Briggs says. The slower, Tuesday chaingang sees the pros joined by newcomers to the sport, and here Briggs finds himself giving out pointers, providing guidance and “just looking out for people, really.”

Briggs is also a member of the “Donny chaingang”, a varying line-up of local riders that often contains some of Britain’s best professionals

With January 1, 2014 already looming large on Briggs’ calendar – the date on which he will return to racing at the Jayco Bay Crits in Australia – the last thing he needed was a dose of flu, but this was the result of an immunization jab at a series of medical tests conducted with his new team at a facility in Swansea.

A week in bed with ‘night sweats’ has forced Briggs to revise his training schedule. Illness, such much more likely in winter months, is another condition faced by amateur and professional alike, but while the advantages of the pro lifestyle seem limitless to the enthusiast, the non-negotiable deadlines of competition bring their own demands.

Power trip

Sprinters and crit specialists are required to produce enormous power outputs, frequently at the end of race. Briggs is hoping a programme of core work will help him do so pic: ©Roz Jones

Watts have long been the performance measure of choice for the professional, and a broadening range of devices on the market has increasingly made training with power an option for the amateur. Briggs uses the PowerTap hub-based system while on the road, as well as for sessions on the turbo trainer, and is convinced of the values of monitoring effort by power output.

“You’re just trying to get the most out of the session,” he says. Monitoring power output keeps things simple, he says, leaving the rider to focus on effort. Heart rate monitors, by comparison, measure the body’s response to effort rather than the effort itself. “When you’re doing your efforts, your heart rate is rising,” Briggs explains.

Core matters

Conditioning exercises, whether performed at home or in the gym are increasingly becoming part of the cyclist’s training regime, whether professional or amateur. Briggs is a relative newcomer to the arena of so-called ‘core work’ but is convinced of the benefits to the cyclist of stronger abdominal muscles and a more stable position on the bike – especially to a sprinter. “To get the power out, you need to work those core muscles around your stomach and keep them firing.” For Briggs, one of the  domestic peloton’s quick men, maintaining a condition that will allow him to ride at his maximum power output at the end of a five-hour race is crucial.

So far, Briggs has been working on ‘plank’ and ‘bridge’ positions, and doing single leg exercises, “just to engage a few little core muscles that you don’t really engage on the bike. You get a little more core stability and hopefully a little more power in the sprint and that can make the difference. I’m hoping to keep them stronger, and hopefully it will all add up.”

Mix it up

The hour-long, high-intensity efforts of cyclo-cross mirror those of crit racing. Little surprise that Graham Briggs can often be found on a ‘cross course during road racing’s off-season

The winter weather can drain motivation from the amateur rider whose livelihood does not depend on getting in the miles even on the coldest days, but for Briggs, about to start the next stage of his career with Rapha Condor, and just over a month away from a trip to Australia that will include four crit races and a two-week training camp, enthusiasm for the bike has not been difficult to find.

For the rider unable to escape to warmer climes on the other side of the world, however, Briggs recommends setting a series of ‘mini goals’ and mixing disciplines. His looming engagements in Australia and a series of local cyclo-cross races have provided targets for the Yorkshireman in recent weeks. The latter holds an obvious appeal for a crit specialist. “It’s a similar type of effort: one hour, with high bursts of power,” he says. “Plus you’re getting your bike skills.”

When Briggs rolls out in Geelong on January 1, the Peak District and training rides with the Donny Chaingang will seem a long way away. With a solid training programme behind him, and reunited with the team with which he won the Elite Circuit Series, the Yorkshireman will hope to rediscover his best form early in 2014.

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