Back in the Autumn of last year I answered a blog posting on my cycling club blog asking for volunteers to take part in a research study. The requirements asked for performance cyclists aged 18-30, I qualified on neither count but fresh from my exploits in France (PBP), I sent my details in anyway. I suspect the research team had to widen the criteria because at the beginning of the year I heard that I’d been selected, and that the study would take place at the British Olympic Medical Research facility at UCL in central London – yes, I could be responsible in some small way in delivering Cav to gold this summer.
I’ve never bothered much about the performance data side of cycling – HRM, power meters and the like – always favouring the ‘get on your bike and hammer away for as long as you can stand it’ approach. But, the world of science can teach us a few things and the opportunity to get some insight into your physical capabilities can be useful for any level of cyclist.
This particular study required 3 visits on consecutive weeks, each time the format was the same – some preliminary measurements were taken, blood analysed and various pre-conditioning protocols undertaken before being hooked up to machines that go bleep, then getting on a static bike for the dreaded ‘ramp test’. The purpose of the study was to investigate the effects of restricting blood supply to the legs using inflatable cuffs (essentially larger versions of those used when measuring blood pressure) prior to exercise, measurements being taken on blood composition and lactate levels before, during and after each test.
So, the ramp test – what’s it like? First, you have to select a cadence that you feel you can maintain – I bullishly went for 90 which may have been a bit strong but ultimately you end up in the same place however you get there, flat out and spent. It’s a pretty standard static bike set-up but you have no feedback except the cadence meter to guide you. Probes are attached to your thigh, to measure blood oxygen levels, plus a HRM and facemask attached to a bulky, chest-mounted device that measures VO2 max. You are counted down and the fun begins, starting with a four minute warm-up at 200 watts – the equivalent of running a biggish gear on the flat. Pretty soon you hit the ideal cadence and settle in, feeling pretty easy and relaxed. Every minute or so you point to a chart scaled 1-10 rated for perceived exertion, from no effort to maxed out. You are not aware of any incremental increases, but after the warm-up the resistance is upped by 50 watts every minute. With no data or sense of time elapsing, all you have to go on is the quickening of your breath and the burning in your legs to inform you. The research team start to shout encouragement, louder and louder, suddenly it seems to be getting much tougher. You can’t stand up or shift position, one minute you are pushing hard but still in control but quickly everything starts to close in…your rocking, trying to get the power down…you can barely focus but you see the cadence meter dip below 90…89…88 each pedal stroke now becoming painful, and then it’s over. A sudden intense exhaustion washes over you, passing quickly to the more familiar state when cresting a climb, ready to go again after a little recovery. But, there is no again in this test, like The Deer Hunter there’s only one shot. Until next week when you get to do it all over again.
Now that I’ve finished all 3 trips, I have some of the data but much of it is still to be properly analysed. I managed to get up to a max power of 450 watts, a duration of around 9 mins 30 each time, with a max heart rate of 185. Reassuringly, my heart rate dropped steeply each time at the end of the test – I don’t race or time trial so recovery rates are more important for the endurance cyclist. I’m waiting to hear back on my VO2 max and other data but it’s safe to say I won’t be troubling Cav (max power 1200 watts) anytime soon. Essentially, I found out what I probably already knew – I’m a fit middle-aged bloke with the capacity to be reasonably effective on a bike, but nothing more without radical changes to lifestyle, diet and training. Ah well, better that than discovering I’m a potential Olympian whose just not trying hard enough.
Finally, thanks to Will, Carissa and Andrea at BOMR for giving me the opportunity to take part in this study, I hope it proves useful to someone.