Take a minute to envision a really great day you’ve had in the last few months... one that was fulfilling, rewarding, and satisfying. Maybe you wrapped up a successful project at work, perhaps even getting a bonus or a promotion. You managed to fit in a nice ride in the morning or at lunch. When you came home, your family was in a great mood and you all enjoyed a meal together, or perhaps you even got out for a date night with your partner.
Whatever made your great day great, it probably was a combination of successes. On their own, these happy moments are great. When they merge on one magical day, things just seem elevated. In cycling, too, that kind of synchronicity can be fleeting. A great ride requires the convergence of variables that are almost as hard to wrangle as unruly kids or a conference room full of colleagues.
Day after day, week after week, month after month, we cyclists chase “form.” We put in long winter hours, endure painful intervals on the indoor trainer, and slug it out in early-season races with the hope of discovering that mythical Atlantis that is form. However, most riders aren’t diving deep enough to get to this perfect moment - but they could. The simple binary of a training plan will tune up your musculature and your aerobic system. But in some way, you know that’s not enough. This is why you’re reading this book, after all. I’ve been in this place before, where I was fixated on watts per kilogram but blind to the bigger picture. It took me years of pro cycling to realize that I needed more than a brutal training plan to reach peak form.
As a coach, I would ride with clients at my CINCH Cycling Camps, talk to them over dinner, hear from them on email afterwards, and I discovered that many of them had the same problems that I did - especially in my early days as a pro rider. They were devoting themselves to their training, their performance metrics seemed pretty good, but they were still struggling: They were getting dropped on their favorite group rides. Their buddies would thrash them on the big local climb. Or they were stuck in the doldrums, finishing a race mid-pack every weekend when they wanted to upgrade to the next category.
After years of listening to my clients — cyclists who are probably a lot like you — and finding ways to meet their needs and help them achieve their goals, I developed the four pillars of the FORM Performance Method: Fitness, Execution, Nutrition, and Focus.
I have ordered them in this way to progress from the easiest to work on to the hardest. The thing is, you need all four to truly reach your peak form, much like you need all of the different, competing aspects of your day-to-day life to harmonize for a truly great day to happen. So don’t pick and choose which pillars you like, or which are easiest to achieve. It is a challenge to perfect all four pillars of FORM, but they’ll provide you with all of the tools you need to win your ride, whether that’s the Wednesday night hammerfest, the epic gran fondo on your calendar, or your master’s state championships.
Pillar I: Fitness
I have never been in a race or group ride that was a steady effort, start to finish. Have you? Unless you’re riding with some incredibly disciplined training partners, I doubt it. Instead, we cyclists naturally surge up short hills. We ease up on fast downhills or on particularly twisty corners. We smash it on the final climb to the finish, whether it’s for a podium finish or bragging rights at the end of the group ride. That’s what makes cycling so fun and dynamic - the ebb and flow, the rhythm of a peloton.
So why then is most training focused on steady-state efforts? Why are most training programs predicated on Functional Threshold Power (FTP), a single number... a single point along a wide spectrum of efforts? The Fitness pillar of the FORM Method is built around 11 PowerTrain Performance Zones (PTZs), each with a specific purpose to suit the demands of cycling’s dynamic nature. In any race or group ride you could find yourself using all of the zones. They are like keys on the piano. Every ride is a different song, it just depends on how you play those keys, in what order, and for how long. You wouldn’t want to play the same note for three hours straight, would you?
These 11 zones are split into three categories: Endurance, Threshold, and Explosive. The majority of your rides will be in the Endurance zones. The pace is slow, and it results in minimal muscle damage. This level of effort primarily relies on fat for fuel, which means it is sustainable for many hours. It may not feel like you’re getting faster when you ride in one of the four Endurance PTZs, but they are essential for performance in the long run.
Unlike the Endurance zones, the three Threshold zones should feel like you’re really hammering, like you’re making gains. These three zones are essential in the crucial moments of a race, whether it’s a major climb, a breakaway, or a blistering time-trial effort. Your body relies primarily on glycogen to fuel Threshold efforts, and when you hit this intensity, you start to incur moderate to high levels of muscle damage.
Finally, there are the four Explosive zones. Here, you are doing extensive muscle damage, relying on glycogen and ATP for fuel, and essentially throwing down the nastiest effort you can to win the race. These PTZ efforts can be up to four minutes in duration or as little as 10 seconds for PTZ 11.
Which of these zones sound like the most fun to you? The super-fast sprint finish or the slow, boring endurance pace? Yes, it is easy to get caught up by the need for speed and focus your training on only the Threshold and Explosive zones. I see this all the time with my CINCH clients when they get started with our program. But you can’t build a house without a rock-solid foundation. You’re not going to see the hard work that went into the underground concrete when you walk in the beautiful entryway. As you admire the sleek kitchen or the spacious dining room, you won’t be thinking about the engineering that is holding the house up above your head. It’s there, though, and you need it!
So, we start with those Endurance zones and gradually develop your foundation. Then, we add on the Threshold and Explosive zones. Each zone has a role to play in both training and racing. As you become more familiar with the FORM method, you’ll be able to use your zones as a blueprint to success. You’ll know where you need to do more work to improve. The zones will inform your racing tactics and your nutrition. When you’ve begun to master these zones, you’ll be able to strategically apply them to different scenarios — and sometimes you’ll win.
Pillar 2: Execution
The power meter is an awesome invention for the sport of cycling. It has changed the game. However, it has also warped our perception of what it means to have a good ride. We now have unrealistic expectations. I witness this in some of the riders I work with, who come to me perplexed by the numbers they see in their power files. “My numbers are actually pretty good,” they argue. “So how come I’m always getting dropped? Do I need to lose weight? My buddy puts out the same normalized power and he ends up in the front group every week.”
A power meter has given you a convenient numbers-based assessment of your quality as a rider or your performance in a race. Is your FTP better this month than it was last? Good, you’re getting faster! Was that last race a new best average for your normalized power? Impressive, post about it on social media! But the problem is that you might not be using your power output to the fullest potential. In this pillar, I’ll show you how to make the most of your power numbers; it’s illustrated by our North Star — a five-pointed guide to riding like the pros, even if you aren’t able to produce the same wattage as they do. The five points on this star are Power control, cadence control, body position, separation, and transitional control.
We’ll explain these concepts in depth later, but for now, here’s a quick look at what they can do for your riding.
When it comes to our power on a bike, we are all too focused on the numbers themselves, not what they can actually do for us in a real life cycling scenario. Is a soccer player obsessed with the amount of force he or she can apply to a ball when taking a free kick? Is a football quarterback fixated on the miles per hour of his hardest spiral? Of course not. Those players, and people in practically any other sport are obsessed with how to control the power they have for maximum advantage.
Cycling is all about building and maintaining momentum. You want to use your power strategically so you can build momentum over the crests of climbs, maintaining it on the downhills and into the flat sections of roads. This is extremely important is rolling terrain like you’d find in New England or the Basque Country.
The system I’ve developed to help riders like you focus on momentum throws away the old concept of power averages for intervals. You aren’t average, are you? Of course not. So, we look at two key power numbers for any given interval: The Power Floor and the Power Ceiling. If you go below the floor, you waste momentum by slowing down, and you’re forced to make an effort to return to your targeted PTZ. Even if you’re having the best day of your life on a bike, you also do not want to break through the Power Ceiling. Your body can only handle so many spikes through the Power Ceiling. Often, after such an effort, your power will dip below the Power Floor. Ideally, when you stay between the Ceiling and Floor, you’re holding your maximum momentum for a given time, without overtaxing your body with the stress of surges to regain momentum.
I’ll continue the sports analogies for the second point on our North Star, Cadence Control. But this one is a little more relatable than a soccer player or a star quarterback. Car racing is different from cycling in a lot of ways, but fundamentally race-car drivers and cyclists are both chasing maximum speed, efficiency, and endurance. Instead of legs, the drivers are pushing their engines to the limit. But they can’t do it in just one gear on the car. They run through the gears frequently, using each with purpose. They downshift to accelerate at high RPMs. Soon, they’re out of that gear and up to the next for more top-end speed. If you know how to drive a manual transmission, you’ve gotten a little taste of this feeling.
Bikes are no different. When you see Chris Froome spinning an insanely fast cadence up Mont Ventoux or L’Alpe d’Huez, don’t assume he will ride 120 rpm for all 21 stages of the Tour de France. I guarantee you that he, and most other pro riders, use cadence strategically, and that’s what I’m going to show you how to do, too.
Use your cadence correctly and you’ll start riding with more torque, meaning you’ll translate more of your power into raw speed. Combine this with good Power Control and you’ll be maintaining momentum more efficiently. And for that matter, your cadence will help you ride with more economy, using your fuel tank more economically and saving yourself from excess muscular and cardiovascular stress.
Cadence is a commonly misunderstood part of cycling. Just as often as I see someone on a cadence hamster-wheel, spinning extremely fast while going extremely slow, I see people who don’t have their Body Position correct to perform the basics of Power Control and Cadence Control. This is the third point on our North Star.
As I’ll explain in depth in chapter tk, there are Three Points of Power that affect your body position: hands, core, and feet. Each of these points has a role to play, and believe it or not, you actually have to adjust them all simultaneously depending on what sort of effort you’re doing, whether you are seated or standing, and what sort of cadence you’re riding.
Once you start focusing on these elements of Execution and improving, you’ll be able to more consciously shift gears like that racing car driver to get into the right zone at the right time. This is the fourth point on the North Star, Separation.
When you set out to do intervals, they should never blend together in terms of either cadence or power. There needs to be clean separation of the zone and effort. For example, if your warm-up is too hard, then it becomes more difficult to hit the PTZ you have planned for your intervals. Your power output in the interval ends up too low, and before you know it, everything blends together and your progression stalls.
Instead, if you clearly separate your intervals with both power and cadence, you’ll be tapping the intended energy system, resulting in the greatest fitness gains. Once you get comfortable looking at the graphs of your power files, you’ll start to see if you were able to get the separation needed, or if everything was blended.
Finally, Transitional Control is the fifth and most advanced point on the North Star of Execution. This is where many of the fundamentals come together so you can use your legs like a Swiss Army Knife. Like I’ve said already, cycling is not a steady-state effort. It ebbs and flows depending on terrain and your competitors, and I intend to help you build an arsenal of options in your legs that will make anyone with a red-handled knife green with envy.
By harmonizing your use of PTZ, Cadence Control, and Body Position, Transitional Control helps you efficiently build and maintain momentum. It gives you the self-awareness to select your most potent weapon, assess your competitors’ weaknesses and hit them with an attack that they won’t be able to handle. And if it isn’t your day to boss the race and control the tempo, Transitional Control lets your respond to moves that others make. There are plenty of ways to bridge a gap to an attacker or to respond to an acceleration on a climb. Wouldn’t you like to have the ability to choose which one will work best for your own abilities and talents?
When I look back at my pro racing career, there are a lot of riders that really impressed me with their execution. I think Chris Horner makes the top of my list, though. I remember comparing one of his power files to mine from the same race, when we were riding at similar levels. His numbers were shockingly lower than mine. Now that may seem like a bad thing but Chris actually finished ahead of me on the stage. How was that possible? His execution was better than mine. Somehow, he’d found little ways to conserve momentum, use his cadence wisely, close down gaps without too much effort, and make the terrain work in his favor. My goal is that, after training with the FORM Method, you’ll be the rider turning heads like Chris Horner did.
Pillar 3: Nutrition
It doesn’t take long for new cyclists to adopt our sport’s most unhealthy tendency, the obsession with weight loss. From the top rungs of the peloton all the way down to the local Category 5 crit, riders never feel like they are skinny enough, even if their performance is visibly suffering. I was one of those people. I was the guy who’d be in the airport on my way to the Tour de France choking down a low-calorie salad when my biggest, most demanding event was just days away.
Our mentality about food needs to change entirely. It is fuel. You need to start viewing your fuel as something you add strategically to boost your performance, not something you take away, chasing a weird European fetish of a stick-figure climbing through the Pyrenees. Following our method, you’ll fuel yourself based on the 3-Sigma Nutrition system, which is founded on the concepts of purpose, composition, and timing.
When you eat your daily lunch at work, are you thinking about that ride you have planned for 6 p.m.? Or did you consider the morning workout you did before you rushed to the office? You should be. Your body needs that fuel, whether it is to prime for a weeknight throw down or to recover from the dawn patrol ride. Don’t assume your routine sandwich and chips is always the right fuel.
Every meal needs to have a purpose. This may be the simplest of the 3-Sigmas, but it is critically important, setting you up for success with the other two. Before you grab that sandwich from the refrigerator or go out to lunch, ask yourself why you’re eating. Ask what you’re hoping to gain from any given meal - both physically and mentally. And then, based on factors like your day’s workout plan, ask what macronutrients are required to fuel yourself optimally.
Your nutritional needs vary wildly depending on what PTZ you’ll be training in that day. Our program focuses on macronutrients: fat, carbohydrates, and protein. I’ll teach you how to adjust your meals to address the needs of everything from a long, steady endurance ride in PTZ 2 all the way up to a super-intense threshold effort in PTZ 7. Again, not all rides are created equal, so not all fuel will work as effectively when you clip in for the day’s workout.
In addition to the three macronutrients, I also focus on anti-inflammatory nutrition. I began incorporating this approach into my diet as a professional rider and it made a huge difference. Every time we do an intense ride, we are inflaming our bodies — legs, lungs, ligaments, and more. To cut down on the toll of hard training, our nutrition system incorporates alkaline foods into the diet that will help your body recover from training.
You may be thinking that our system will set you on a strict, boring diet. But don’t worry - you won’t have to give up every indulgence that satisfies your cravings. I tell my athletes to stick to the 80/20 rule: 80 percent of the time you eat healthy and stay with the plan; the other 20 percent is your chance to enjoy a post-ride beer or eat a slice of your kid’s birthday cake.
The third key to our nutritional program is the timing of when you fuel. Your body doesn’t care when the clock strikes midnight — it doesn’t have some internal calorie tally that gets reset every day. While the concept of carbo-loading the night before a big race is a bit antiquated, it hits on a fundamental point related to timing nutrition. You need to plan more than 24 hours in advance when you’re fueling for a major event.
Also, you should know that as you become a more fit, more experienced cyclist, your calorie demands will go through the roof. Your tank will empty quicker. The margin for error will become much thinner.
It takes a little time to adapt to the 3-Sigma system and to make a habit of planning your meals and measuring your food. However, I can tell you that you won’t want to skimp on this pillar. Toward the end of my career, careful nutrition planning helped me feel better than I had my whole life at age 37. Imagine what it will do for your riding and overall well-being!
Pillar 4: Focus
What drives you as a competitive cyclist? Why are you here, reading a book about the intricacies of training and nutrition?
Throughout my career, 99 percent of mistakes I made and anxiety I felt occurred because I lost my “why.” I wasn’t paying attention to my purpose in cycling. I was reading VeloNews or CyclingNews, just searching for my purpose. Or I was listening to my team director for his take on my purpose. I made a lot of bad decisions because I was too busy looking outward. I needed to be focused inward.
As a cyclist becomes acquainted with some of the fundamentals of cycling, it works to follow others’ lead because you model the simple things, the obvious stuff like food or training techniques. But you eventually fall off the “cliff of missing direction” because you reach the “why,” which is unique to each rider. If you’re too focused on other riders when the “why” question comes up, you don’t have any substance to support your purpose, and the better rider you are at this point, the harder the fall will be.
In the Focus pillar of the FORM Method, I’ll guide you through an arsenal of tools you can use to prepare yourself mentally for any race scenario. The Core Performance Qualities will give you reassurance and motivation. And I’ll guide you through a process of developing a focused vision that will help you tap into your purpose and give you perspective on your strengths and weaknesses, leading to an outcome that will be meaningful to you.
I will also introduce you to Performance Chains, which use a toolkit of different mindsets to focus on so you can use your brain to drive your effort on the bike. At first this concept might seem a little new-agey: We’ll use metaphors like switching into a Lighting mindset for a fast attack, using the Fire for a long, hard climb, flowing through the peloton with a Water mindset, or enjoying a recovery ride with a Cloud state of mind. But don’t underestimate your mind’s power to drive your body.
Don’t believe me? Well, let me end this with a story from my pro racing days to illustrate just how important it is to be in the right state of mind when you’re in the middle of a key race.
When the Fire went out on Brasstown Bald
In the 2005 Tour of Georgia, I beat Floyd Landis by lighting up Brasstown Bald, going hard right from the bottom and beating him by more than a minute.
Fast forward to 2006, I went into that race hungry and really wanting to win it again. It had become a big race in the US and was a priority for a lot of American sponsors. My Achilles heel had been my time trial the year before. So, I had worked a lot on my time trial to be closer to Floyd.
I did a very good job with the Fire mindset in the time trial. I primed for it; I visualized; I pre-rode the course a lot. I did probably one of my best time trials ever. I finished second in the time trial, beat Dave Zabriskie, and I finished second to Floyd by four seconds.
Going into Brasstown Bald in 2005 I had to make up a minute on Floyd, and this year I only had to make up four seconds. I had the number one on my back. I was very confident because of the time trial. Or at least I thought I was very confident…
All day on the Brasstown Bald stage, I was using my Fire mindset quite a bit. Moving up on climbs at unnecessary times, going back to get water bottles when I could have asked a teammate to do it, being super-intense. I remember jumping into the early breakaways at the beginning of the race as we went over some hard climbs when I didn’t need to. It was full fire mindset.
Finally, when we got to Brasstown Bald I didn’t have any mental gasoline left to go. I got to the base of the climb and my team did a really hard pace like I asked them to. After Yaroslav Popovich pulled off on the finish climb, he was my last guy, I tried an attack but I really wasn’t mentally checked in. Because of what happened the year before, I expected that attack to work. It didn’t. I didn’t use my explosive zones. I didn’t use my Fire mindset. I kind of had a Water mindset, and because my brain wasn’t driving the efforts, it didn’t work.
I didn’t drop Floyd. He sensed, I think, that mentally I was fragile and that I wasn’t completely committed. So he rode next to me and started up some shit talk. He said I sucked, was no good... saying all kinds of other bad things. He was unbelievable.
After that, I got into this pattern where I didn’t commit to the Fire mindset. I tried to use a little bit of a Lightning mindset to attack, and he would just ride next to me. On each climb he’d knock me down and just say “Oh that was a shitty attack. Do you think you’re going to drop me with that?” I had never experienced anything like that before. I didn’t know what to do.
At the end, my teammate Popovich came from behind and just passed us, so he was leading. I think the combination of that and me realizing I’d messed up just got me pissed off. At the very last part of the climb things came together and I was able to get back to that Fire mindset. I was able to do one big hard effort at the end, caught Popovich, passed him. But I waited too long to drop Floyd.
When I crossed the line after winning the stage, Floyd just came off his bike and passed out. I saw that and was like, “Holy shit, he was totally on the rivet.” He walked over to me after the race and said, “Hey dude, I totally played you. I was fucked.” I had no idea.
Brasstown Bald is a Fire climb, and I didn’t have the Fire ready because I’d wasted all that mental energy going into it and maybe some the day before too. I didn’t have it. Even though I won the stage, I didn’t win the race overall when I should have. And the fact that he was able to capitalize on that, take advantage of that, really shows how powerful the Mental Pillar of the FORM Method is.
The year before I went into Brasstown Bald ready to light the whole climb on fire. From the bottom I just went — full commitment, full fire. I had Levi Lepheimer with me, and I never even thought twice to question my effort. I knew I had to light the whole climb on fire, and he was going to burn up eventually, which is what happened.
One of the big mistakes I made in 2006 that shows you how bad I got my mental prep wrong was that I was visualizing my victory salute. Never do that. But if you’re in the Fire mindset you can’t even do a victory salute. Everything is on Fire.