Learning how to race ride from the professionals

“This is an exciting time for women’s racing. You girls are key to making this normal. You could be the biggest women’s team in England”.

Leda Cox is one of Britains most experienced professional cyclists. Leda has raced all over the world and clocked up 30 international wins. Forced out of racing due to an injury, Leda and her husband Jez Cox, who is also an ex-pro rider and now GB Duathlete, run a successful coaching outfit Howgoodcouldibe. This winter they have turned their attention to coaching the ladies of Dulwich Paragon, the Paragonettes.

We met Jez and Leda on a fresh sunny morning in December in Richmond Park, which is a beautiful space in London which is home to a herd of deer, along with weekend joggers, horse riders and dog walkers. The park offered us a natural circuit to commence our race training.

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Experience within the group was mixed- some girls have got a few seasons under their belt and others like me had no experience at all. But we all had one thing in common, we want to see women’s racing grow, and we want to be a part of it. By taking part in race training which will lead to more of us racing, we are already making this happen. The aim of me sharing this training experience is to break down a few more walls and get more girls confident and ready to race.

So what did we experience on our first session?

Jez and Leda gave the group some great tips not only for the first of our sessions but also for winter training in general. The first was overshoes! Leda told us about her first training session with the Dutch professional team, “ I was crying into the arms of the team manager after the training session, my feet were so cold!”.

Hydration was hammered home, even though it is cold and the last thing you really want to do is drink cold water, keep sipping away.

Next up was a quick Dutch lesson! In order for Jez to be able to get us working effectively as a tight knit group, we needed to nail our lines of communication. Jez has a whistle for various uses, whether to get us to listen or to set us off on various exercises. The word ‘ho’ tells us to slow down, the word ‘hup’ tells us to speed up, instead of lots of different words flying around and the group getting confused. Not only does this make things easier, but it also makes it safer.

Rolling out from the cafe, I immediately felt privileged to be a part of this group of girls. It’s a wonderful feeling to be riding with like minded people.

Our first exercise was based was what the French call souplesse- the perfect pedal. In order to achieve this, we had to pedal one legged, swapping alternate feet after ten or so revolutions (full turn of the pedal). We rode spaced out at first, to give us a chance to get used to the technique and get our balance, then we came back into a group where we had to work in time- front riders dictating the pace and which leg remained clipped and had to do the work, and which leg got to ‘hang free’! This was a great exercise in teamwork, and soon we were a well drilled group.

We then spent a bit of time practicing through and off, which is an exercise that allows the group to share the work into the wind, so each rider has an opportunity to recover whilst keeping the legs spinning. It requires the group to communicate, hold their line and keep the pace consistent.

Fully warmed up, we got onto some race specific exercises, and this is where it started to hurt. My legs and lungs were screaming at the end of the first exercise, and this is what it should feel like says Leda, you have to really push yourself to and beyond your limits. “It will hurt!”- and that it did!

In order for us to practice sprinting to catch a group, and to get our legs used to what it feels like to jump into a hard threshold effort, we spilt into two groups and rode 50m apart from each other. The idea is that the lead rider from the second group attacks the back of the first group, letting the last rider of the first group know that they’re ‘on’- the message gets passed up the group and the first rider of the front group drops off to the back of the second group, and so it continues. The rider catching up needs to work hard. This is where gearing and body position comes into play. Making sure you are in a high enough gear to accelerate quickly, without the wheels spinning away, whilst launching into the attack on the drops and out of the saddle.

The second exercise consisted of a mini paired race simulation, slowest riders as the first pair, and the strongest as the last. Jez set us off in our pairs a couple of seconds apart, and we raced a 1.5km loop. It was a good first experience of how quickly the group can bunch, and how you should think about tactics before you start the race. I personally found it a bit intimidating when the stronger riders came though (I was in the first pair to set off), and they seemed to use me as a wind break to jump ahead. Having only ever ridden in a co-operative group, this was a whole different experience! I was soon passed by the group who had the combined strength.

Jez hammered home the importance of tactics after we got our breath back. He explained that our tactic should be more than just ‘not to get dropped’. He explained that tactics and plans will change as the race unfolds, but you should be anticipating this and reading the race. I for example, should have jumped on the wheel of a rider that was passing me, and ideally I would have had that plan from the start line. That requires bravery, and I’m not 100% sure I was feeling brave enough in the first session.

At the end of the session I was absolutely spent. Probably a mix of nerves and a new way of riding. We were given bags of encouragement from Jez and Leda to get on the track and race, and Leda told us not to worry if we were the weakest riders. By getting dropped, you learn the skills of keeping up faster. Good news for me!

In the next session we got on a purpose built racing circuit, and the skills start falling into place.

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