Gran Fondo Training Guide: What Cyclists Training for a Gran Fondo in the Northeast Need To Know

A Gran Fondo should be a challenging cycling event for cyclists at all levels. No matter what kind of a rider you are, if your goal is to simply to finish the ride, or to win the KOM, completing a Gran Fondo is a goal that provides you with an opportunity to improve yourself and push your limits. It’s a significant commitment, and performing well means making a long term plan to achieve your goals. If you are a cyclist based in New York City, New Jersey, or anywhere else the Northeast, you know that the cycling season here is different from in other parts of the United States. Success in September requires a specific plan that fits the northeastern cycling conditions and the right combination of high efficiency indoor training workouts can really help in getting an advantage over the climate.

So what are the best strategies for you to improve your cycling, making training more efficient, and enjoy the most fun you can have on a bike in a single day this coming September?

Cycling Coach Earl Walton

Cycling Coach Earl Walton

We sat down with NYC-based cycling coaches Earl Walton and Brian Hammond of Tailwind Endurance. Tailwind Endurance, a cycling performance training center in New York City, focuses on high efficiency indoor training for endurance athletes, using methods where significant gains can be made in a short time when compared to traditional training programs. 

We asked Coaches Earl and Brian to give us their expert advice on how to prepare for Garden State Fondo, the Northeast Endurance Challenge, by combining indoor and outdoor training wisely. We focused on the keys to developing a successful hybrid training plan with specific training blocks to fit the Northeast cycling environment and the specific cycling skills that can help you perform well at the Garden State Fondo. We came out with tips that can help you succeed at any cycling event, but more that that, with the first written Northeast specific cycling training guide. 

Q: Coach Earl, Coach Brian, your coaching programs are focused around indoor cycling and Tailwind Endurance’s NYC indoor cycling studio. Why do you think indoor training is growing so fast right now and what are the main advantages for cyclists?

A: Let’s face it: Winter sucks in the Northeast for a cyclist in training. The grey days, cold weather and messy roads lead to inconsistent outdoor training opportunities, not to mention it takes an extra hour to get the layers on before heading out. Knowing what awaits you at 5 am can make or break your training day.

Advances in indoor training technology have made the indoor experience more fun and way more effective than ever before. Apps like Zwift, Sufferfest and Trainer Road create amazing online environments and communities to play in while setting specific measurable goals that drive you back to the bike day after day. Indoor ride studios with Wahoo Kickrs and Computrainers provide that same goal-setting software with the benefit of a coach and a group of friends to sweat with.

Add to that a clean bike and access to your music, fridge and TV and you’ve got something to look forward to each day (not to mention...you can ride in your summer bib...and nothing else).

There is efficient work and efficient use of your time. Indoor training is great for both.   Remember that hour of hauling on layers and forcing booties up over your shoes? Skip it. Bib, phone, water bottle, music in your ear and away we go.

Efficient training time is another important aspect. Training indoors allows us to control every variable used in training; intensity/power, cadence and time. This allows us to do a given interval exactly how we want; if we want to do a 20 minute interval at a certain intensity and cadence we do not have to worry about a downhill section, stop sign or a random squirrel running across the road. 

Eliminating external variables allows us to get the precise training response we are looking for by remaining at the desired intensity for the desired amount of time. With interval training it is very important to hold planned intensity for a specific amount of time; if the intensity or the time changes then the results of that workout will change. 

As an example, we may prescribe an athlete to hold a Zone 4 effort (RPE 7-8) for 15 minutes to improve their muscular endurance but if they are outside and get caught at a traffic light in the middle of it or a long down hill then all of a sudden it is no longer a 15 min interval but rather turns into 2 x 7 min interval which will not provide the intended physiological response or possibly no benefit at all.  This makes indoor training not only advantageous during the winter months when the weather is bad but also during the warmer months when you want to hit specific intervals. 

To truly improve as a cyclist, we as coaches strongly recommend a mix of both indoor and outdoor riding year round so you can improve both your fitness and your bike handling.

Q: Can indoor training make you stronger than training outdoors?

A. Not anymore than outdoor training can make you stronger than training indoors. 

Put simply, a cyclist must improve in two major categories: fitness (engine) and bike handling (skill set).  For a cyclist to become a stronger cyclist, one or both of those need to improve. As mentioned above, training indoors is a more efficient way to improve your fitness but it will have little effect on your bike handling, whereas training outdoors is great to improve your bike handling but is not the ideal situation for improving certain types of fitness.  

Cycling Coach Brian Hammond

Cycling Coach Brian Hammond

In no way are we saying that you cannot improve both fitness and skill either outside or inside; what we are saying is that you can have a greater impact on each of them by training in the preferred environment. When we are training indoors, our main focus should be on improving our fitness and when we are riding outdoors it is time to focus mainly on our skillset. The bottom line is that a combination of indoor and outdoor training is going to produce the greatest gains for any cyclist. 

Q: Cyclists riding the Garden State Fondo have 6 months from now to train for the big day. How should they think about this timeframe in terms of training blocks?

A: This is always a tough question to answer because of the wide variety of athletes that participate in an event such as the Garden State Fondo - from people looking to attain fast times to those looking to finish having fun. So let’s talk a little about both ends of the field. We should also address this from the perspective that the athlete is most likely coming from the Northeast and is limited on the time they can ride outdoors during the first few months due to weather. 

Block 1 (3 months) The Chill - The “New” Base Building Block:  For both types of athletes (Fast AND Fun) the base building block in the Northeast is pretty similar as our time outside is limited. If you read most books or blogs they generally recommend starting with Base Training which typically involves long and slow rides; but those guys writing the books live in sunny warm California not the bitter cold Northeast. Yes we also need to build a “base fitness” but we can’t build it the same way; we don’t have the ability to go out and ride 5 hours when it is 20 degrees out so we need to utilize our time wisely on the indoor trainer.  

Base training in our area is flipped on its head, opposite of the they way they look at it on the warmer coast. Fitness is gained by increasing volume (amount of riding) and/or intensity (how hard you ride) so if we are losing volume (time) because of our bad weather then you need to increase our intensity to make fitness gains. Take a look back at how much volume you typically do in say August and now look at how much you typically get in January. A lot less right? So if you reduce your volume and you reduce your intensity you will lose fitness not gain it; so we cannot afford to ride easy during the winter months; we need to increase our intensity if our volume goes down and we expect to gain fitness. The goal of this block is to gain fitness regardless if you are looking to win or finish so keep the workouts intense if your time is limited. 

Main takeaways for winter training:  High Intensity Interval Training. Gym Strength. These are foundational items to prepare you for the workload ahead. Crosstrain now and keep the riding to 2 days per week. You’ll have plenty of miles ahead of you.

Block 2 (3 months) - Booties and Arm Warmers please! When the nice weather hits: Similar to the first block, Fast and Fun are still on the same track. The idea here is now more like the traditional “Base Build” and is where we can now start to get our long slow rides in. The weather is now nice so we can use our weekends to begin building those miles (volume) at a more moderate intensity. The rides during the week should remain shorter (60-90min) and keep that same type of intensity you were using during the winter training block; we don’t want to throw away the strength we gained. The shorter intense rides is a great time to utilize indoor training; this way you can control the efforts. The long rides and outdoor shorter rides should be focused on bike handling. Pick a skill to work on such as cornering and be mindful during the ride about how if feels if you shift your weight this way or that way; think about taking a different line and see what that feels like; think about when you brake and accelerate. Pick a new skill each outdoor ride and improve your bike handling. 

Main takeaways for Spring training:  Sustainable intervals. Long endurance intervals to build a massive aerobic base.  Begin to add low cadence work at sub-threshold to define your core connection and powertrain. A cycling camp in the Spring is an incredibly valuable tool to kickstart your outdoor riding season.

Block 3 (2 months) Sun’s Out // Guns Out - Leading into the event.  This is where the programs begin to really separate depending on your goals.  If you are looking to have fun and finish let’s continue on with Block 2 and keep building fitness and skills all the way to the event. The key to having a fun and successful event is having the fitness and nutritional plan to handle the event and keep smiling.  If you are looking to perform for a fast time goal then you need to get more specific in your long rides by focusing on the profile of the race and certain sections. Take a good look at the climbs and what you will need to do (power/cadence/time) to perform well and practice those situations during your long rides.  If you know you are going to be facing a 15% grade, go out and find one and practice on it; what gear, what cadence, how long, what power? This is the time to fine tune your situational fitness. 

Main take aways for Summer training:  Get out there. It’s time to practice riding in a group, hitting the hills (GFNJ is notoriously hilly) and extending that endurance over long periods of riding. Don’t neglect bread and butter work like 2 x 20 threshold intervals indoors.

Last Block (Fall): Sharpening skills. It’s almost Fondo Time. Weather is changing, winds are different; ride with your group as often as you can. Check your equipment and get out.

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Q: When do you phase in indoor training to a long term planning plan?

A: I never phase it out. Indoors is a staple in any training plan I write. It’s simply the most consistent workout I can provide. I phase IN the outdoor riding as the weather gets clear. The first outdoor rides of the spring are geared to endurance building – getting TOTS (Time on The Saddle) outdoors at an aerobic base.  Extending those 2 hour indoor sessions to 2.5-4 and eventually 5-6 hours as the weather warms up.

This is all endurance work, while we continue to develop power and sustainable efforts indoors on the trainer.  As the Spring moves in and we’ve had enough aerobic outdoor work to have a handle on our riding skills, we introduce group riding and hill work. 

Q: What is the best way to use an indoor training to prepare for an endurance event like GFNJ? Are some type of workouts better than others?

A: Strength. I LOVE low cadence strength work on the bike for Fondo events. You are going to grind up a bunch of hills, so let’s connect the core and really drive into those low cadence intervals.  These are hard to do on variable terrain outside, so the trainer is an awesome place to have this focus.

I am a big fan of a 4-8 week progression where we progress our intervals at a 50-60 Cadence.  Start your first week at 3 minutes at 50-55 RPM with equal rest; increase that interval up to 6 minutes each week at your Sweet Spot (88-92% of FTP / 6 on a scale of 10 RPE).  After week 4, take a recovery week, then start over and increase the power numbers by 10 at 3 minutes and build back to 6. 

Tailwind Endurance offers personally tailored indoor cycling programs and coaching services in New York City .