“I think the reason Cavendish wasn’t good is the way that he finished Tirreno-Adriatico. He finished the stage on the Monday and didn’t ride the final time trial. He had four days waiting for Milan-San Remo and that’s a recipe for disaster. I know myself… you’re staying in a hotel, the pasta is really good and you can eat too much of it. You’re doing very little training because you’re just ticking over, but the food intake, that’s where you can slip up and I think that’s where Cavendish slipped up. He didn’t get it out of his system. It wasn’t because the hill was too steep. It wasn’t because it was too fast. It was just that his legs were blocked.” Sean Kelly on why Mark Cavendish misfired at Milan-San Remo
It’s what any cyclist fears; the morning of every race, getting out of bed. How do the legs feel? Dangling over the side before planting feet on the cold floor. Are they stiff? Sore? Straightening up. The first few steps. Are they tight?
But the answers don’t mean anything. Aching legs that can barely walk sometimes feel like oiled pistons the moment their feet clip into the pedals. Sometimes fresh supple legs transpire to be dull and useless. The only true answer will come during the race itself, the decisive moment – will they respond when you put the foot on the accelerator, or will everything stutter to a halt? Blocked Legs.
It’s not fatigue. Day one on a bike and everything feels awkward, knees seem to point in the wrong direction. After just a couple of days off the bike, returning to it can feel like starting all over again. But the second day and things make more sense, and by the third when by rights you should be crawling with fatigue… invincible.
Common sense suggests the days spent before a race should be about rest. They call it tapering. It doesn’t apply to you. The Wednesday before winning Paris Roubaix Boonen was towing the bunch along at Scheldeprijis – no sitting with his feet up and scoffing pasta for Tommeke. So for Sunday’s 3rd cat 70km race you don’t need a week of leisure and pampering.
Unfortunately bad days on the bike can’t always be predicted. Even pros like Cavendish, with all the scientific bods at Sky advising on his preparations, sometimes get caught out. Worse, even the same pre-race schedule throws up different results – an easy week leading to a lousy race. A hard week leading to a lousy race. And not everyone is the same, what works for some might fail to work for you.
But the prevailing thought is to make sure you always ride the day before any race. Always. It shouldn’t be too arduous, an easy spin but with a few short hard efforts thrown in. And always do some sort of warm up before a race – the shorter the race, the longer the warm up.
The rest is a sort of mystery. Over time, through trial and error, you’ll figure out what works for you. Maybe you’ll be lucky and never find yourself misfiring in a race, always a coiled spring ready for action. But for the rest of us, race day will always begin with the fear of Blocked Legs.