“Alex has got a very good attitude and it’s a cliché but he has the passion for it. He’s a time triallist through and through. It’s the perfect test for him.”
Alex Dowsett could, in February next year, become the first Brit to break the hour record since Chris Boardman in 2000 and Mark Walker at least is in little doubt as to whether the man he coaches can do just that.
Walker combines his role as course manager for Writtle College’s foundation degree in cycling performance with work as Dowsett’s one-to-one coach – as well as working with the likes of British cyclo-cross champion Helen Wyman.
Having already helped the Essex rider, 26, smash the ten-mile time trial earlier this year, Walker will now work with Dowsett as he bids to tackle the hour – with Rohan Dennis likely to be the man to beat as he tackles it earlier the same month.
And Walker told RCUK preparation for the event will follow the same principles as any other time trial Dowsett has prepared for – which include his Commonwealth Games title, three British national championships and a stage win at the Giro d’Italia.
“In terms of the work with Alex, he got the ten-mile record earlier in the year and did a huge effort for that so in terms of the work for the time trials and the hour record it is similar,” he said.
“In scientific terms, there’s the test called the critical power test and that’s around the highest power output you can hold for an hour. Essentially, the hour record is the ultimate test of that. It’s a time trial, and that is what the training is around.
“Obviously there is a bit more involved than that – equipment sponsors ensuring the bike and kit is the best there can be and on top of that the rush on the hour record at the moment.
“Riders have seen the opportunity – Jens Voigt did a brilliant performance but he is not regarded as one of the specialists. You have to keep your eye on the fact the record could tumble.
“For anybody training for this, they will have to keep a keen eye on where the record’s likely to be. We’re in a unique position where it seems almost every week someone is announcing they will have a go at it.”
Despite the change in UCI regulations – where any legitimate endurance track bike is allowed for the event, a change which has prompted the sudden flurry of record attempts – Walker also insists the challenge is still a hugely physical one.
And, as a cycling fan as well as somebody involved within the sport, he believes the change to be a positive one.
He explained: “If you look at it bluntly as a sports scientist and as an athlete, you work within the rules that are there – and, in a way, the rules are arbitrary, aren’t they?
“Who said it had be done on 32-spoke wheel, steel frame or a aero-profiled, carbon fibre bike? Any sport with a technical element to it will always benefit from technological developments.
“All the riders now ride bent over with low-slung handlebars. That is the norm now. Back in the late ‘80s when LeMond first popularised it, it wasn’t the norm.
“Merckx would have had the lightest possible bike and best technology in his time. Moser had disc wheels, Obree and Boardman tried to use technology.
“I don’t see anything wrong with the new rules – it’s not like Formula One where it’s so high-tech it comes down so much to the car.
“There are gains to be had with better technology but you still see the physical elements come into play. It’s uncomfortable riding a bike like that for an hour so that will take some physical prowess too.”
Walker also offered an insight into the sort of work Dowsett will be doing in preparation for the challenge – though he insists each individual will profit from their own specific exercises.
The key behind it all though, unsurprisingly, is building a huge endurance base and keeping the volume of training high – with plenty of miles in the legs.
“Classically, endurance exercise is one of those funny things,” he explained. “Sven Nys, for example, talks about doing one-hour racing for cyclo-cross but all the time he’s doing big volume training and building that endurance base.
“That’s the interesting thing about endurance – you will have 800m runners doing big miles on the road and marathon runners the same. All the time, with cycling, it’s about building that big engine.
“That helps improve efficiency – you can ride with less oxygen which uses less energy and their VO2 max and aerobic power increases. It’s off the back of that you will start to tie in your specific issues.
“Science informs everything – I’m a sports scientist – but it doesn’t have the answer to everything.
“It gives you a head start – you know what should and shouldn’t work – but there are so many individual difference between riders that you have to try to find what works for the individual. That is still the art of coaching against just following a scientific approach.”
Anybody inspired by Dowsett, however – and the Movistar man spoke of his desire to inspire young children with haemophilia to follow in his footsteps and refuse to let the disease hold them back – must start to the build that base as soon as they can.
Both in his exploits on the road and his preparation for the hour record, Dowsett will be looking to boost his body’s capacity to take on the punishment of the ‘race of the truth’.
Walker explained: “I set Alex’s daily exercise prescriptions, so I decide what qualities we’re going to be working on in a given week and I give him training based around that and specific numbers to work off.
“Sometimes it will be working off feel and time, but we take a mix of the sports science and traditional methods we ought to be following.
“If you are talking about your amateur cyclist or the aspiring younger athlete then always you have to build that engine first. VO2 max, people talk about that at great length – it is important you can consume lots of oxygen so that you can then combine that with your foods to release energy.
“Beyond that, though, once you have built that you will get to a ceiling where the other factors [of training] start to be more involved with improving performance.
“Any training programme you put together, first of all you have to develop your endurance over many years and then once you’ve got that you can work on the high intensity.
“A professional cyclist does that over a smaller timescale, with base miles in the off-season. It doesn’t sound like anything new but I’m afraid to say that’s what you work off.”
He added: “You then need to be working on efficiency and anaerobic characteristics. The latter are really important in these events because you will start to rely on fast-twitch fibre muscles.
“Within the training you would want to have a simulation of that – there needs to be interval sessions in there. When you are working on time trialling or, in this case, the hour record, you need to know your absolute pace as well.
“The clear thing is that you’re trying to beat a record so that needs to be the focus of what you’re trying to do.
“A lot of cyclists will focus on power outputs and that’s a very personal thing depending on body composition and so on, but then it becomes more like track athletics – a focus on what the target time is and whether you can consistently hit those lap times over the course of an hour.”
Dowsett has also spoken in the past of the work he puts in off the bike, and Walker admits he is well aware of the benefits of cross-training.
But he is also keen to press the point that any work done must be related to what you hope to achieve on the bike, with the muscular and postural constraints of cycling an important consideration if you plan to hit the gym.
He said: “There’s a lot of good evidence about doing strength training. A lot of endurance athletes have been reluctant to do that. You can use it, but at the end of the day you have to be able to apply the strength.
“If you are only ever lifting heavy weights, at the same time you have to be able to pedal supplely – you have to apply the work you are doing to what you do on the bike.
“You’re not necessarily moving the muscles through the same ranges of motions if you are sat on the bike and of course you haven’t got all the same postural problems.
“There are a lot of things to consider, but the move is there – you have to be sensible about it and know how much, and when, you should be doing. Sequence in training is the trick – always.”
The end product of Dowsett’s training over the coming months will be put to the test at the end of February, when he races against the clock for what could be a hugely memorable hour at London’s Lee Valley VeloPark.
For Walker, though, there is little doubt as to whether the Essex man can write himself into the record books.
He concluded: “The wheels [of Dowsett’s hour record bike] say ‘The Perfect Hour’ on them and that’s his attitude summed up.
“On the day, all things being well and having got him there in shape and with his attitude, he will have a very good chance of setting a very good record.”
There will be plenty of British fans certainly hoping that is the case come Friday February 27.
The two-year Foundation degree in Cycling Performance at Writtle College is designed so students can pursue their competitive cycling or coaching ambitions while studying. It gives access to a British-registered professional cycling team which regularly competes in the United Kingdom and mainland Europe. Visit www.writtle.ac.uk for more information.