How I learned to love the rollers

Mind numbing fun in a basement in winter

It's 6.50am on a winter weekday morning and I'm headed out the door to work. It's -3°C, freezing fog and I'm thankful it's only a 15-minute walk. I time it so that the building will be open when I get there, the security guard at the desk looking as chipper as ever (not very).

Don't worry, I'm not being conscientious. My destination at this hour of the morning isn't my desk, it's the basement carpark. There I have access to my bike and a set of rollers. It's the simplest way of training without having to brave the cold and without annoying the neighbours.

The beauty of rollers is that you just stick the bike on top of them and go. Unlike a turbo trainer, there's no messing around with wheel clamps and resistance levers, and both you and the bike are free to move around on them. That means you have to concentrate, which in turn makes the sessions slightly less boring.

Mastering rollers takes a bit of time and practice but it's ultimately satisfying in a way that the turbo can never be. The combination of balance and smooth pedalling adds another dimension to your indoor workout. And it'll impress your friends.

First, ensure the axle of your front wheel is directly over (or slightly behind) the axle of the front roller. Next, make sure you've got a decent amount of air in your tyres. Doing both of these things will help with your stability right from the off. Also some rollers are easier to use than others. I'm using a set of Elite Parabolic rollers, which have a curved lip at the edge of each roller to prevent falling off the side.

You'll probably need to support yourself on a wall or a door frame to get started. It takes time and confidence to let go, and you'll no doubt experience a few wobbles. Don't panic, keep pedalling, upping the speed if necessary, and let the bike do its thing. After a while it'll become second nature. Just like riding a bike really.

How not to ride rollers

Absolute roller mastery

Back to the basement

I clip in and get going. Unfortunately today is a boring 90-minute low intensity session spiced up with a few sprints. There's no TV in the carpark, no screen with a virtual course profile in front of me, no music, nothing fun or distracting. Just the concrete walls, some old office furniture and a small square of ancient carpet on the floor in front of me. It's at an angle of approximately 35 degrees, not that I've spent time working this out.

I'm using a power meter and heart rate monitor to guide myself through the session. I could make it more interesting by varying the wattage every five minutes while still staying in the right power zone, but I opt for the steady state approach. Two minutes at 180W, then another three minutes bringing it up to 230W before eventually settling on 240W.

This is going to be a long one. I remember reading on Twitter that Alex Dowsett did "five hours straight on the turbo" the other day, watching three movies back to back. Lucky beggar, he's got a TV. Just remembering that and mulling it over gets me up to minute seven in my workout. This is the sort of stuff that keeps you going.

I then try to calculate what my average power will be after 10 minutes, given that it was 198W after five minutes. If I sit on 230W for the next five minutes then it'll be 214W. It turns out to be 215W. But now I'm at 10 minutes. I repeat the calculation for 15 minutes and get it wrong because I'm now riding at 240W. I reset the variables and get the calculation right at the 20-minute mark. I'll call that a victory.

Twenty minutes – that's not quite a quarter of the way through. We'll revisit milestone counting at 30 minutes, which is definitely a third of the way through. At 22 minutes I notice a spider crawling along the ground. It walks across the carpet towards me, then decides that getting too close to a piece of plastic that's spinning at over 300rpm is probably not a good idea. It turns away and heads towards the drain. Good luck to it I say. 23 minutes and 30 seconds.

My next mental distraction technique involves shifting my hands from the hoods to the tops. A couple of minutes for each one and voila! I'm at the magic 30-minute mark. That's a whole third of the workout done. Time to recalculate watts. I was at 224W at 20 minutes and now I'm at 231W after 30 minutes. Can I hit 234W after 40 minutes? And what's the potential maximum, given a 240W average from now on. Basic maths problems really don't get any better than this.

But there is light on the horizon, in the form of a 10-second sprint at the 40-minute mark. I spend at least five of the next 10 minutes planning for this sprint. Do I use 53x12 or 53x11? How should I distribute my weight? What average wattage do I think I can attain? 38 minutes ticks over and I do some more hand position changing before beginning to shift up gears. 53x14, 53x13 ... and I opt for the 53x12 for the sprint.

Deep breath, go! Keep it smooth, you don't want the back wheel jumping out, wind it up a little, nope too much, back off. And done. It was somewhere between 500-600W, which isn't much for 10 seconds (I can do another 400W on the road) but it's still a good 100W better than last week. A smooth technique is everything on the rollers.

Super-fast technique

The next few minutes are occupied with recovery then regaining the 240W steady state. Although I suspect it's higher than 240W as the average has gone up to 237. That's thrown my calculations out and I give up that particular line of thought for the rest of the session.

45 minutes, time to take a sip of water. One hand off the bars, grab bidon, sip a couple of times, put it back in the bottle cage. All without the bike veering wildly off centre. Another technique improvement that I've been working on.

For the next five minutes I notice my heart rate has crept up a few beats despite my power remaining constant. It will do this, partly because there's no wind cooling me down and partly because that's the nature of isopower exercise. I wonder if I should get a fan, and if so how big it should be. The conclusion is no, it's not worth it and there's nowhere to plug it into anyway.

I reach the 50-minute mark, which means it's time for another sprint. Oh joy! This time I choose 53x11 and once again concentrate on putting out as much seated power as I can while still remaining stable. It seems like a good one although it's hard to tell because the power jumps around a bit.

Fifty seconds of recovery, which passes quickly and I'm back at 240W. I've noticed that I have to lift my speed (useless in anything but a relative context) from 73 to 75km/h in order to maintain the same power. Presumably it's because the friction in the rollers is reduced as they heat up.

I'm now coming up to the magic one-hour mark. Two-thirds of the session done, sweat pouring off me into a moth-shaped pool on the floor. Time for another sprint, 53x12 this time, and it's the smoothest one yet. I don't know how it compares to the others; I'll have to wait until later to look at the data.

I do some more hand shifting and looking at the patterns on the concrete wall next to me. Does that one look like Norway or is it just a blob on the wall? Definitely the latter, although it takes me several minutes to come to this conclusion.

1hr10 in and the final sprint is nigh. I give it as much as I can in the 11, but am still frustrated by my poor technique. The average won't be higher than 600W I'm sure. On the plus side, my overall average is now 240W. I can't be bothered back calculating what I must have been riding at for the last hour, but that's probably a good sign.

The final 20 minutes don't exactly fly by, as I have no more sprints to look forward to. I check the time (8.32am now) and average heart rate (134) and then start to think about what I should do at work today. I come up with the brilliant idea of writing a blog about my training session. As a result I may have to rethink the way I plan my day.

Ten minutes left and I work out my exit strategy. Five minutes in 53x14. No, make that seven minutes in 53x14. No, how about five minutes in 53x14, then two minutes in 53x15. Genius! That gives me three minutes to kill. That works out at ... two minutes, no make that one-and-a-half minutes in 53x17 then the final one-and-a-half minutes in 53x19.

The average drops to 238W by the end, which annoys me for some reason. But I've done the session and earned myself a shower, coffee and chocolate in that order. Even better, tomorrow's session is only 75 minutes. That in itself is something to look forward to.

From the above, you might think that riding rollers is boring. However I can assure you that it's not, relatively speaking. No, from my experience riding on a turbo trainer is what's really boring.

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