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“Felt great on the ride, nothing really hurting, glutes are a little sore, and I can feel some fatigue, but really pretty good during and after. Did well to hold the power, hopefully, I was on target for what you wanted.”

I have heard comments such as these from athletes I work with many, many times. This type of conversation makes me think about the paradigm that exists between riders, their coaches, and their equipment.

When I was a 16-year-old, skinny kid with aspirations to be the world’s fastest bike racer, the junior peloton was healthy and filled with future stars. I raced against Bobby Julich at the Colorado State Time Trial Championships in 1989 using a radical, straight-laced front wheel with 18 bladed spokes, an 18mm tire, and clear packing tape over my helmet vents. This was cutting edge technology at the time. There were no power meters, and I didn’t have a heart rate monitor (although they would become much more common in the next few years).

In 1989, how did riders pace themselves during twenty kilometer time trials? Without a powermeter to modulate pace for the first five kilometers, or a heart rate monitor to tell them what percentage of their lactate threshold heart rate they were riding at, how did a rider not blow sky high? Riders used one metric that is supremely important; it is the ultimate measure that all riders need to have immediate and direct access to at all times during a race. It has nothing to do with power, heart rate, lactate, hydrogen ions, hydration or glycogen content. What is this metric? Perceived exertion. A talented rider has an acute understanding of how close to red line the engine is at any given second. The number is a simple ratio of current pace vs. maximum pace, at any given moment in a race: up a climb, over a roller, around the wheel in front of you in a crosswind, to the line for an intermediate sprint, to establish a gap over a group.

The problem comes when modern athletes adopt the sport in the presence of technology, and they do not learn the critical skill of tapping into the internal tachometer. When you grow up doing time trials with Bobby Julich starting 30 seconds behind you, and the official says “go!”, you quickly learn (sometimes the hard way) how hot you can run the engine before he catches you and beats you (in my case). The necessity of learning through trial and error teaches you to rely on your instinct. The question must be answered.

When a rider does intervals now they can rely on a display that gives them a numeric value calculated by strain gauges and digital software. The rider trains with these numbers and knows their functional threshold power. The rider gains experience with these numbers and assigns them value. Good numbers are above a certain line; bad numbers are below this line. When good numbers are reported, the coach responds with praise; with bad numbers, the coach responds with concern or analysis. Thus, a reward/praise cycle is created, just like the sixth grader who draws a picture of a racecar or a unicorn and gets hugs and smiles from parents.

As race time approaches, the numbers gain importance; the rider and coach can construct a hypothetical model of a race course, made of zeros and ones, and then produce an expected average power to win or reach a certain goal. Calculations are made for wind, grade, temperature and pressure, coefficients of rolling resistance and aerodynamic drag.

The numbers are regarded as prognosticators of future performance. If the athlete is producing the numbers they think will get them the placing they want, they are motivated and the ride goes well. Conversely, if after the first few kilometers the numbers are not on target, the athlete’s confidence erodes and the ride gets derailed.

There are a few problems with this paradigm. First of all, numbers are based on models, and models can be wrong. Or, as some would say: all models are invalid in a large enough domain. The question is: what is their domain of validity.

Take Michael Creed, for example, who one year at a World Time Trial Championship held himself back because the numbers were too good to be true. The entire race he kept a bit in reserve, trusting his modeled numerical pacing and ignoring his instinct to go faster. He crossed the line and realized he had not ridden at the limit, a medal within reach but not obtained. History irrevocably flushed.

I have personally crossed the line in a TT thinking I would win; I had to, based on the numbers. When the results came, they showed a different number. My calculations led me to a mistaken belief and my model was invalid.

But the bigger problem than invalid course models is riders not trusting their instinct; not learning to read their own internal tachometer. When a rider thinks a coach “wants” a certain number, the paradigm is reversed. I don’t want any numbers at all; I want my riders to win races, to go faster than they ever have, to break sound barriers and shatter realities. I am not attached to a rider raising their FTP or riding a local mountain with a higher average power than they ever have. These are a means to an end; a PowerMeter or heart rate monitor are valuable tools which give us important data, but they are tools. Numbers are the products of those tools, not end goals.

As a coach, what do I want? I want my athlete to use numbers as feedback, but never to be chained by them. I want common sense to be the common denominator of any training or racing choice. I want my riders to know when to ignore the numbers and go deeper, and also when to ride home and take a nap. I want my riders to FLY: to start a time trial with confidence and fire, and open the throttle to go as fast as they possibly can all the way to the finish line. I want them to soar up mountains, and plummet (with safety and skill) down valleys. I want them to cross the line or finish the effort with precise internal knowledge of how deeply they went, and what percent of maximum it was, to the hundredth. This is the true goal of any coach and any rider: complete freedom to pedal with total maximum effort.

Then we can look at the numbers.