Suffer so good

Can pain and suffering really make you a better cyclist?

What is The Sufferfest, and can all this pain really make you a better cyclist? Cycling Plus writer Neil Pedoe immerses himself in this underground culture of bike training videos to find out…

Opera soars through my head as I lunge for an easier gear to spin and catch my desperately short breath. Earphones on, in the half-lit corner of my damp, cold cellar, I’m totally immersed in the cardiovascular thrashing from the interval training video on my computer screen in front of me.

All too soon my 30 seconds’ recovery is up and I need to change back to a sprinting gear. I scrabble at the levers... Bang! The now familiar sound of a pistol shot launches me into yet another flat-out seated sprint – 20, 25, 30, 35mph flashes up while high-energy electro replaces the opera, and spectacular helicopter shots of this year’s Giro d’Italia switch to the sprinting mayhem of a Grand Tour stage finish.

Ten seconds later, it’s back to soaring opera and helicopter-shot race footage. Naples looks amazing. The interval is over, but with only 38 of 64 sprints done I’m only just over halfway through the 68-minute Violator video from aptly named cycle training video producer The Sufferfest. Bang! The next sprint interval’s here…

Suffer in science

A look back at my workout stats afterwards reveals a precise session with a warm-up and warm-down, 64 sprints of 5, 10 and 15-second durations and all the requisite recovery periods. There’s sports science to this suffering, so it’s no surprise to find it has been designed with the help of Apex Coaching’s Neal Henderson from Colorado, who has the likes of BMC pro rider Taylor Phinney on his client list.

All of The Sufferfest’s 16 bike-training videos are equally structured and targeted, from the sprint training Violator I’ve just completed to the big gear Angels climbing workout – all set to fast and furious race action from the Grand Tours and Classics like Paris-Roubaix.  

There’s even a 20-minute functional threshold (FT) performance test for those who need a heart rate- or power-based FT benchmark for training plans. It’s a vital test for serious training but straight faces aren’t The Sufferfest way.

Instead, Sufferfest owner David McQuillen and his fellow so-called ‘minions’ of the fictional domain of pain Sufferlandria put together footage from numbingly tough races like the Tour of Flanders with an energising soundtrack and call it the Rubber Glove.

Behind the workout there’s a serious structure and goal – hence the involvement of ex-pros turned coaches Dan Fleeman and Stephen Gallagher of Dig Deep Coaching. But it’s this suffering with a sense of humour – in Rubber Glove’s case augmented with the appearance of a snail, a pro cyclist cooking breakfast on rollers, a power lifter and a monster truck – that has made the videos so popular.

Culture club

From humble beginnings in 2009 with home-edited video using unlicensed music and pro racing footage for McQuillen’s own personal use, The Sufferfest is turning into something of a worldwide training phenomenon. “Put it this way,” McQuillen tells me, “Strava’s got about 70,000 followers on Facebook; we’ve got over 100,000.”

The success of the videos owes a lot to McQuillen’s social media expertise and the growth of online virtual communities that embrace and live the culture of The Sufferfest. Central to this is the fictional country of Sufferlandria, for which you ‘race’ in the videos against the likes of Andy Schleck, Alberto Contador and Fabian Cancellara. You’ve got your own national flag, a team kit and even a national tour, the Tour of Sufferlandria, with a tour director called Grunter von Agony.

Coined ‘the greatest Grand Tour of a fictional country’ – by McQuillen of course – the inaugural nine-stage Tour took place in January 2013. ‘Racers’ ride a pre-set Sufferfest workout each day for nine days – occasionally two a day. The idea took off, and over 3000 Sufferlandrians competed.

The second Tour starts on 25 January with a Rubber Glove ‘examination’, and will be raising money for the Davis Phinney Foundation, which fights Parkinson’s.

Social support

The big surprise is that suffering on a turbo no longer has to be a solitary endeavour. The first Tour spawned a closed group on Facebook called the Tour of Sufferlandria Survivors’ Support Group – ‘For those who have developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from completing the inaugural Tour of Sufferlandria, and to help arrange suitable treatment in the form of immersive therapy by further suffering’.

During the London Olympics this virtual community spilled over into reality, as McQuillen hosted a protest party in a City pub, with 100 or so Sufferlandrians turning up to show their support. What protest, you ask? That Sufferlandria had not been invited to the Olympics, despite McQuillen’s open letter to the IOC demanding recognition…

Of course, where there’s a culture – especially online – there’s bound to be a sub-culture close behind. Hence a small online splinter group of Tour of Sufferlandria survivors calling themselves the Knights of Sufferlandria. It sounds a bit cyber-geek until you find out the real task of what’s needed for access to this exclusive, invitation-only group.

When I asked knighted ‘Dame’ Liz Johns what deeds of derring-do were needed to become one, she simply replied, “No derring. Just do. Ten full Sufferfest videos in a row, with only 10 minutes’ rest between each one.”

That’s about 10 hours of intervals on a turbo trainer plus short breaks. It sounds crazy, but like all the best challenges it sucks you in slowly but surely, until it seems the most logical thing in the world to have a go.

I know because I’ve done it: 11.5 hours, 184 miles and, according to my Garmin, over 12,000 calories burned. Not to mention seriously sore sit bones and a stinking cold that took hold in my following state of suppressed immunity. And all to go absolutely nowhere – except into a closed access Facebook group with 34 other suckers for suffering.

Virtual friends

Despite spending the whole day pedalling in a dark, damp cellar on my own, only emerging into the blinding daylight for the odd 10-minute break, the experience was remarkably social. Most of the breaks, and a good deal of the warm-ups that the videos start with, were spent replying to the constant stream of social media encouragement from other Sufferlandrians.

“Friendlier than a sportive” is how Army doctor and fellow Sufferlandrian Knight (though he did his on rollers!) ‘Sir’ Dave Triska describes Sufferlandria. Anyone who’s done an Etape du Tour or tough sportive will suspect he’s right, having ridden all day with thousands of tight-lipped cyclists. It’s ironic that the Sufferfest Knighthood has been my best supported challenge ride, despite being the most isolated and solitary in the physical sense.

“The beauty of a remote, virtual fitness community over even a cycling club,” adds Triska, “is that it removes most of the negatives – perceived or real – that can permeate sports clubs. Who’s not felt anxious turning up at a ride with new people, who all seem to be eyeing you suspiciously and critiquing you and your ride?”

Liz Johns confesses she was “waaaay fat and couldn’t face exercise in public”, and Steve Taylor was embarrassed to ride outside. Both have fought back to fitness with the help of The Sufferfest, before going one step further and completing the 10-in-a-row Knighthood challenge. Idaho-based Steve has even turned into a serious racer. “I’ve since gone from 136kg to 97kg and competed in the US Masters National TT Championships three years running,” he tells me.

Pain, train, gain

Underneath the culture, Sufferfest videos are targeted training sessions that can perform specific training functions. You can even base your whole training around them, with one of the plans on the Sufferfest site.

There are three road training plans designed with the help of Dig Deep Coaching – beginner, intermediate and advanced – and two cyclo-cross plans. Each is 10 weeks long and combines two to three indoor training sessions a week in the form of specific Sufferfest videos, with one or two longer outdoor rides.

“Turbo sessions aren’t just for winter,” says Fleeman. “It’s such a controllable and time-effective workout that you can spend every minute on a specific aspect of training, whether it’s speed, power, threshold, aerobic capacity or lactate tolerance.

“A power meter or heart rate monitor will make the workout more precise but without either you’ll still make training progress with the videos, as a Rate of Perceived Exertion scale of 1-10 is used along with cadence and gearing instructions throughout.

“Out on the real road, with junctions, hills and other traffic, you’d be lucky to spend 60 minutes out of a 90-minute training ride pedalling at all if you live in a town. Turbo trainers are even good for recovery rides, where you can spin easily for 40 minutes regardless of headwinds or the temptations of hills and other passing riders to make you push harder.

“Sufferfest videos are particularly good for cyclo-cross training and criterium racing, with the constantly repeated short, sharp efforts matching the demands of these fast, attacking race formats.

“We coach GB cyclo-cross champion Ian Field, and if you look at his performance data from the championships, he put in over 180 10-second-plus bursts of 600-plus watts during the race.” The Hargroves Cycles rider has also had input into the Sufferfest ’cross training plans, especially on the technique side of things.

Power program

The best way to use the videos, according to the Sufferlandrian community, is with an indoor bike training software program called TrainerRoad. It’s this software that produces all those scientific-looking, multi-coloured workout charts so proudly shared on the Sufferfest Facebook page.

The principle of the software is that after working out your functional threshold in either power or heart rate, it then tailors each workout for you. After that, during each prescribed workout – according to which of the 30 training plans you choose – it imports your live heart rate or power so that you can match your effort precisely to the intensity required on screen.

With a wireless ANT+ USB stick plugged into your computer you can pick up the data from your own power meter and/or heart rate strap. But the really clever thing is the program’s ‘virtual power’ capability, where it works out your live power output by a calculation based on your turbo’s known power curve and the speed your ANT+ speed sensor says your back wheel is doing. Welcome to the world of training with power…

To incorporate Sufferfest videos into your TrainerRoad training plan, just drag and drop the video file into a workout screen and start pedalling… and suffering… then posting updates... Then you’re a stone’s throw of peer group pressure from your own attempt at Knighthood.

The pain cave

To embrace the pain you’ll need a place to set up your rollers, turbo or exercise bike. Affectionately known as the ‘Bike Torture Chamber’, or BTC, there are dozens of pictures of setups on the Sufferfest website (thesufferfest.com).

“They range from staring at a brick wall, to the deck of a warship, to the torpedo bay of a submarine, to a police cell,” says self-confessed BTC expert and policeman Alex Taylor. “The last one I set up so I could train in my break.

“My main one is set up in the garage, out of the way of the family, where I can turn up the volume. Which, incidentally, is why it’s a good idea to set up facing the door – with loud music, especially through headphones, you don’t want the shock of a tap on the shoulder as the first warning you’re not alone.”

Every Sufferfest BTC includes a screen to watch the videos on – the bigger the better. “The video file sizes are quite big,” says Taylor, “so I keep them on a portable hard drive. Then I play them through a laptop running TrainerRoad software (trainerroad.com) hooked up to a TV. I’ve also got compressed versions of the videos, created with a free program called Handbrake, so I can play the videos on my iPhone when I go away.

“In an ideal world you’d have a permanent BTC set up, so you can jump on and go with minimum set-up faff. To this end, get as much set up as possible before the start of the session. For an early morning workout, set up the night before, choose and cue up your planned video, fill your drink bottles…

“A fan is essential to stop you overheating – even in winter – and finally, buy the best turbo you can afford, as a better machine will have a more road-like feel and help motivate you to come back for more.”

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