It all started as a co-incidence really. For various reasons my calendar didn’t fit with any of the usual training camps I’d been to in Spain or Majorca in the past – you know the sort of thing – warm weather (or at least a lot warmer than U.K) perhaps a few mountains (well, definitely mountains if you’re comparing to U.K), a week of having a great time hammering every day – only problem being of course the inevitable post camp cold/’flu on return to UK which at it’s worst meant six to eight weeks off the bike and a ruined season and at its best simply allowed fitness levels to drop back to where they were. And in any event a camp was more a holiday than anything else – when I got back I did the same training as I’d always done and generally as a consequence got more or less the same results as I’d always done. Certainly a definition of stupidity is ‘always doing the same thing and expecting a different result ‘.
So, I went to Lanzarote. Lots (well a dozen or so) of scarily skinny and fit looking people at the airport – English, Irish, American and Italian. This was then followed by the ritual humiliation of the body fat check and weigh in. To be honest, I thought I was in reasonable shape, had trained fairly hard over the winter and been to the gym and been fairly careful over diet. However the man who did the same checks on Lance said
‘16%’ which despite his impeccable Italian good manners I couldn’t help but interpret as ‘fat git’. The knife was twisted a bit further by asking ‘had I been doing much cycling recently’. However, as we were reminded over the course of the week – you can’t argue with the numbers and more weight means more to carry where it counts, uphill.
The rest of the Camp was spent on some of the fundamentals underlying the 53×12 programme. Key amongst these is the 1km uphill test – repeat rides up a 1km climb with slightly higher wattage each time with Dr Ferrari extracting a drop of blood to test lactate at the end of each repeat. The exact same protocol used for Armstrong and other professional clients of Michele. So some more unarguable numbers – well most of us
didn’t argue but one American triathlete couldn’t believe them. I was
glad there were triathletes there – it meant I wasn’t the slowest. We
then had a mountain time trial (more numbers) for Michele to fine tune
the training levels indicated by the 1km test results and a ‘fun race’ –
this involved 2 riders being given a head start into a head wind and
then being chased down over 40km by the peloton. Put like that it
doesn’t sound very much but no description can really do justice to the
suffering involved in the chase (once we’d finished arguing about which
way to rotate the line) – despite this we didn’t get them – chapeau
We also spent time practising some of the key training elements
underlying the 53×12 programme which is very carefully structured around
specific and alternating cadences and varying heart rates. This meant
that when I finally started on the training programme it was all a bit
Fortunately both due to the volume of training on the week and the
further tactic of not eating anything I had lost over 2kgs by the end of
This meant the last night of the Camp dinner organised by Pete from
Sports Tours (a man guaranteed to know the best restaurant and wine list
in any city in the world – unfortunately his waist line reflects the
amount of hard work involved in getting this knowledge) was good fun
with lots of food and even wine!
So I came back from Lanzarote a bit thinner and a lot enthused. I was
still pinching myself at the unique experience offered by being in such
a small group with continual input from arguably the most successful
cycling coach the world has ever seen. However, part of me was still a
little sceptical that what clearly has been very effective over a long
time with top athletes like Armstrong wouldn’t be as effective with
someone like me who’s ambitions don’t really nowadays stretch much
beyond Gran Fondo’s.
The approach I took therefore was ‘I’ll do the programme exactly as sent
every week via internet and then we’ll see how it goes’. I deliberately
took the approach of ‘believing’ rather than trying to understand ‘why’
every week or even comparing to previous training programmes I’d done.
And to start with it did feel odd as my body got used to higher
cadences. The first indication of the amount of progress (despite what
was -compared to any previous programmes – both a lower volume and a
lower intensity of
training) – came on a weekend trip to the Alps in mid May. I didn’t need
numbers to know that I was climbing Col de Croix Fry not only a lot
faster than last year but also a lot ‘easier’ and at a much higher
average cadence. Despite my approach of ‘just getting on with it’
whenever I was unsure or had any questions I got a response from either
Stefano or Michele within 24 hours.
So rather than give a boring reprise of my other rides this year I’ll
fast forward to the Autumn Camp (again organised by Sports Tours Int.) held
in Majorca at the beginning of October. This was again an excellent camp
and being the end of season some of us even had an occasional beer or
ice-cream (otherwise ban-ned substances). It was great to meet a lot of
the same guys who’d been in Lanzarote (and admire the racing successes
they’d had during the year) aswell as make new friends and meet up again
with 53×12. In addition to Michele and Pete from Sports Tours the other
key people are Stefano Ferrari with Fatima Blasquez (3 times Spanish
Olympian and Tour de France feminin rider) helping women riders on the
rides and also providing after ride massage. Majorca was arguably a
better location in terms of roads and hotel than Lanzarote but the
quality of input from Michele and Stefano was of exactly the same high
Because I was ill at the beginning of the week I had to carry out the
key 1km test and uphill time trial on my own with one of Michele’s
professional clients (a current Tour de France rider) who’d flown out to
Majorca just to do the test to see if Dr Ferrari would accept him as a
client. Same day, exactly the same test, he even had to wait at one
point while I had blood taken. As I said at the time ‘how cool is that!
Anyway back to the numbers ‘which never lie’ :
My VAM (average climbing speed – this together with watts per kilo
being the key numbers for Dr Ferrari) was 1200 m per hour (Tour de
France rider was 1600 m per hour). Importantly this is almost exactly
20% higher than in Lanzarote.
I’ve lost 8 kilos and now my body fat % is 10% – which may still be too
high for a Tour rider but is, I think, pretty good for a forty something
fairly average rider.
My watts per kilo has also increased in line with VAM and although still
substantially short of the magic 6.7 required to win the Tour is I think
not bad for me and hopefully with another 8 months or so on the
programme will see me to a gold medal in the Etape du Tour and a top 500
placing in Nove Colli.
So overall what do I think of the 53×12 programme?
It works. Just believe. I thought I was fit but now am 20% faster. It works. Just think of the number of Tour de France, Giro and World Cup successes of Dr Ferrari. The only thing that is different for the professionals is the volume. And it fits with the rest of your life. The volume and organisation of the sessions is such that it is much easier to fit with a work and travel schedule – And you don’t get sick. Other programmes in the past I’ve done made me go fast in short term but made me sick. No overtraining on 53×12 programme.
And in addition to this I’ve had the privilege of meeting and spending time with Michele, Stefano and Fatima aswell as the guys I’ve met on the camp. All good friends and support for my opinion that a lot of the nicest people are cyclists.
As some of us older members of the 53×12 ‘family’ said – ‘I wish we’d known all this 20 years ago!’
Thank you Michele and Stefano!
Fancy doing a week this spring? Check out Sports Tours International