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In Riding with the Rocketmen, James Witts looks at what professional cyclists do to train for their big races, and then analyses it to see what is relevant to his own forthcoming challenge. Anyone else looking to make the right choices for an impending event will find some good information here.
It's getting close to that time of year when Tour de France-related books start to appear. Riding with the Rocketmen does something slightly different because it focuses on L'Étape, which is a day when mere mortals ride one of the more challenging stages of that year's Tour. This makes the connection to le Tour a bit more distant, but it's also a bit more relevant to our own cycling.
'Can this amateur cyclist complete L'Étape du Tour?' asks the book's promotional material. Of course he can: thousands manage it every year. The stage in question is the one that Tom Pidcock completed a few days later.
The more pertinent question is whether he can write a good story about it. Again, the odds are good: Witts writes extensively and engagingly for magazines and websites, and also has written a book about much of the science that supports top-level cyclists.
Put the two together and you get something that is a bit different to yet another 'average person tackles some extreme event and suffers while doing it' book. As well as being entertaining, here's one that could actually be useful as well, because Witts tries to work out which 'training secrets of the world's best cyclists' are relevant to him – and possibly, us.
After all, when his 'contacts book of recent times is far more detailed and denser than my training diary' (and those contacts include the support teams behind some of the world's best cyclists), Witts is better placed than most to make sure he is making informed choices.
Accepting that your own starting point and abilities will be different to everyone else's, most people are likely to give some thought to the basics that are covered here: bike fit, nutrition, and sleep, for example. I'm not even doing an event as extreme as L'Étape, but I can see the advantages in getting these things right for any level of cyclist.
Sometimes I was surprised that he had put up with an obviously sub-standard situation for so long, and it was only taking the event seriously that finally prompted some action – such as 'a bed that's actually long enough for me to stretch out in'. I would be surprised if Witts' analysis didn't cause you to re-evaluate some of your own choices.
Then there are the sort of things that you might be aware of, but were not really sure how relevant they might be to your circumstances: compression garments perhaps, or sodium bicarbonate, or just preparing mentally for the inevitable low points. Again, Witts is only trying to make a decision about what will help his riding, but along the way he will provide much of the information necessary for you to improve your own training. It all depends on what is realistic for you, and how far you want to go.
Another group of topics might not make it into your programme (for many and varied reasons), but you can be sure that someone else will be trying them: maybe altitude-simulation tents, or even EPO.
That's right: "let's switch the browser to the private settings and search 'buy EPO'," he writes. He didn't succumb, but did find out how easy it is to obtain – as well as other potential performance enhancers such as human growth hormones or weight-loss drugs.
After he's completed the event successfully, the final chapter concludes with Witts' thoughts on 'what lessons I could pass on to other Every(wo)men who might consider rising to the same (or a similar) challenge'.
Amazingly, after exploring every avenue for improvements, Witts finds that the priority is to do the obvious things well – like doing some long rides with plenty of climbing, getting low enough gears, and pacing yourself.
To put it another way, there is little point in worrying about peripheral matters (such as what width of tyre to use) if you don't get the basics right – and even less so if you then leave one of your wheels behind...
Along the way we also get to hear about the rest of his preparation: the usual issues of fitting around family life, riding preparatory events, and embracing indoor cycling, for example, which is the more standard fare for such 'big challenge' books.
Predictably, things don't always go according to plan. These parts are certainly entertaining, but are not really what makes the book unique.
It's an interesting idea to explore how all the science used by top-tier teams can benefit the likes of you and me, and even better to put it into practice by riding an appropriate event. Witts is well-equipped for the task, bringing as it does the learnings from an earlier book to bear on preparations for his own challenge.
Entertaining and useful guide to what pro cycling science is applicable to the sort of cycling we might do ourselves
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road.cc test report
Make and model: Riding With The Rocketmen by James Witts
Size tested: 234 x 153mm
Tell us what the product is for and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about it?
From the publisher:
An Everyman dropped into the world of Supermen... Can this amateur cyclist complete L'Étape du Tour?
Tadej Pogacar has 7% body fat, Chris Froome's resting heart rate is 30bpm, Mark Cavendish reaches sprint speeds of over 50mph. They're super-human cyclists who ride 3,500km over 21 stages across the Alps and Pyrenees as a matter of course.
James Witts is 45 years old, fatty deposits have begun to nestle on his back and he has a penchant for craft ale. He also rides a little. But not a lot. In his job as cycling journalist, however, he does have unparalleled access to the world's best riders and their expert support staff.
Which got him thinking: could spending time with the pros, discovering the training, gear and nutritional tricks of the trade, transform this back-of-the-pack sportive straggler into a fit-and-fast frontrunner?
In this entertaining and warm-hearted tale, Witts gains access to the world's greatest teams and riders to reveal the tricks of the trade. As an Everyman dropped into the world of Supermen, he trains, rides and eats using the regimes of the planet's toughest athletes, to conquer his very own Grand Tour.
Will he sacrifice the pub for stamina-boosting beetroot juice? Can an altitude mask really send his performance soaring? And will his ego cope with a drag-cutting, little-left-to-the-imagination skinsuit?
Tell us some more about the technical aspects of the product?
Title: Riding with the Rocketmen
Author: James Witts
Publisher: Bloomsbury Sport
Format: Trade Paperback
Delivers on the promise of assessing effectiveness of pro cycling science to normal cyclists.
Tell us what you particularly liked about the product
It's more than a blow-by-blow account of the difficulties faced by the author undertaking a big challenge.
Tell us what you particularly disliked about the product
Did you enjoy using the product? Yes
Would you consider buying the product? Yes
Would you recommend the product to a friend? Yes
Use this box to explain your overall score
It's excellent, and makes pro cycling science applicable to the sort of cycling that we might do ourselves.
About the tester
I usually ride: My best bike is:
I've been riding for: Over 20 years I ride: Most days I would class myself as: Expert
I regularly do the following types of riding: touring, club rides, sportives, general fitness riding,