Tour de France stage winner David Millar has a talent for injecting a double shot of speed when it’s needed. He reveals what it takes to sharpen your speed.
The ability to ‘turn on the gas’ and increase your pace rapidly and substantially is a racing essential – and a handy skill on those ‘fun’ rides that always turn into the Sunday morning world championships.
Sprinters tend to be best at short blasts on the gas, while the powerhouses can up it a couple of notches and sustain this for long periods. And then there are the real speed merchants; riders who can turn it on when the pace is already at the max, closing gaps on breakaway riders, getting to the front and lining the whole peloton out, or simply blasting off the front at an incredible rate and maintaining it to the finish line.
Riders like UK national champion, team Slipstream rider and three-time Tour de France stage winner David Millar.
Millar’s training tips: how to get that high-speed edge
Millar at speed
“I guess I’m quite fortunate in that I have a good level of core strength,” says Millar, “which is essential when it comes to being able to turn on the gas. Most of my fine tuning is done through racing itself, as it’s the best way to be put in a situation and have to use it, which is not always as easy in training – but not everyone has that opportunity.
“To develop your speed it is best to have a good base level of fitness to start with, plenty of time in on the bike; this enables you to develop things to a higher level, sustain your bursts for longer, and to recover faster.
“You need to be able to lift your speed from an already high pace, and to be able to sustain it and then recover very fast. The best way to do this is repeated simulation in training – on the road or on a turbo trainer. Build things up to an already near maximum pace – medium time trial speed – and then lift it to your max for 30 seconds, then come back down to the original pace for four minutes and keep repeating the exercise. Mix this with sessions that include 20 second maximum speed sprints with one minute rests and you should see improvements pretty quickly – but you have to keep pushing it up.
“I find it easier to do things naturally; when I was younger that would be by chasing trucks and mopeds, but that can be dangerous so it’s not really advisable!”
“It’s really important to be in the right frame of mind. You need to be focused on what you have to do, and be prepared to hurt, because it will really hurt for a couple of minutes or so. Think about what you need to achieve – which will be different at the end of a race than it would be to close a gap mid race – and then get your head around things and commit to what you are doing. If you go about it half heartedly then it won’t work – especially if it’s an attack.”
Composure: ride quiet, ride smooth
Millar is known for his rock-solid positioning on the bike
“When I was younger I used to read articles like this, and l learned a lot of things from them, and one quote I always remember was to ride quiet. It’s important to keep your composure and to look relaxed and untroubled in front of other riders, even if you are not.
“Keep it smooth, think about being still and efficient on the bike, and try to keep from rocking and fighting. The only time to let things get ragged is when you are all out and alone and closing on the line, then it’s all or nothing and doesn’t matter quite so much.”
Position: learn to mix it up
Millar’s aero but precarious breakaway position
“Lots of riders only have one basic position when they are full throttle, but I have three – depending on what the situation is. If it’s a long effort at high speed on the flat then I will get aero and rest on the tops of the handlebars with my arms – but this can be very precarious so I cannot recommend it in most situations. But at 50kph the aero benefits of having your elbows tucked in and your body streamlined can be significant. “If it’s hilly or rolling I will be on the brake lever hoods ; this enables me to get more power out, especially when the terrain starts to head upwards.
“When it’s absolutely all-out for a short period – like leading out a sprint or attacking – then I will be on the drops. It gives me more control and allows me to harness the power.”
Pacing: meter out your effort
Long breakaways require you to keep something in reserve till the last few kilometres
“Your pace and ability to recover from efforts, and to sustain them, will be unique to you, and that is something that you will have to learn by performing simulated efforts in training.
“Exactly how you judge your efforts will depend on the timing and what you hope to achieve. If you’re closing a gap mid race then you need to think about timing and recovery – don’t go to your max to close things in a short time and find yourself being blown out at the bottom of a hill or as another rider attacks. Conversely, at the end of a race you must try to judge it to get everything out in those last few minutes; there’s no point in having anything left in the tank when you cross the line.”
Attacking: plan, focus, commit, hurt
Just riding along? Or is Millar perfectly positioned to attack?
“It’s important to know what you’re doing – and when to do it – when you choose to attack. Think about things in advance and work it out; it’s no use just doing things for the sake of it. Check out the course, wind direction, other riders and so on, and then have a basic plan.
“When I attack I get myself into a position close to the front of the group and spend a few minutes geeing myself up and focusing on what I need to do. When you attack it needs to be fully committed, 100 per cent; there is no point in anything less. You must sprint more or less fl at out for around 200 metres in a bigger gear to open a gap, and then settle immediately into your maximum pace for a couple of minutes, at your normal cadence, which will hurt. Then, and only then, should you assess if it’s been successful. A quick glance over your shoulder will tell you what the situation is.”
Medium bursts: keep some gas in the tank
“When you are closing down gaps or turning things up without attempting to go clear it’s a diff erent approach. Controlling things is key, and this is why it’s important to know your abilities; it’s no use grinding yourself into a hole only to be left behind.
“A less explosive increase of speed is required, and you need to work out how much you can afford to put out, how long you need to recover, and if you are likely to find yourself unable to respond. In a pro race these things are calculated; when trying to close a gap we leave it until as late as possible to avoid any lulls in speed and reduce the risk of counter attack. But in everyday use the key is to have some gas left in the tank.”