‘Trust the process’. This is what I see full-time mountain bikers type in their social media posts when they feel they haven’t achieved what is deemed (by them) to be a good enough result at a race. Following a professional mountain bike coach’s structured training plan for the past two months, I am learning to relate to these three words. But man, the frustration is killing me…

By Sean Badenhorst

I don’t have the same pressure as full-time mountain bikers have. I don’t get paid or given a bike and gear to race and produce decent results. But I do put pressure on myself based on my lifelong desire to always be better than I was before and the fact that I’m ridiculously competitive. I don’t have the same patience either it seems. I want to see more rapid progress but feel like it’s taking forever.

Dark and grainy – the image reflects the effort of climbing Alpe du Zwift as fast as possible.

That I’m 51 seems to escape me when I’m on a bike. Anyone riding with me or near me – no matter what their age – is seen as a potential rival and must be beaten, or at least try to be beaten. Every ride feels like a race to me at some point, not always the climbs because I’ve reluctantly conceded that I’m never going to be a world-class climber, but definitely the flats, descents and especially the sections with lots of corners, where skill and experience count most.

So after seven weeks of following a personalised training plan from Coach Lance Stephenson I reached a point where it was time to do an actual fitness test. The best place for me do this according to Coach Lance, is on the massive mountain climb in the Zwift app. The mountain is called Alpe du Zwift and it’s essentially a virtual replica of Alp d’Huez, the fabled French Alpine climb.

My most recent Alpe du Zwift effort – while still fresh near the base.

I had done Alpe du Zwift twice before with very different times. The first attempt was on 2 May 2020 where I clocked 01hr 01min 01 sec at an average speed of 12.0kph and an average power of 226W. The second attempt was on 27 January 2021 where I clocked 1:07:54 with an average speed of 10.8kph and average power of 210W.

To give some perspective on why these two efforts were so different, on 2 May 2020 South Africa was in its initial five-week Level 5 hard lockdown. I hadn’t left the property for four weeks and spent every single day doing at least one training session on a Tacx Neo2 smart trainer in the virtual world of Zwift. It was my way of dealing with the highly frustrating lockdown that took away all the freedoms I had known for 50 years! So I was fit and strong and focussed.

The second attempt was when I was not so fit, not so strong and not so focussed. I had had Covid in late-May 2020 (I assume it was Covid as nothing else was going around and I was ill for three days, but struggled with constant fatigue and elevated resting heart rate for three months). This second Alpe du Zwift effort was done on a Wahoo Kickr 5 with the Kickr Climb, a gradient simulator that I was testing for a review and which I felt would be best to test on a proper climb. It was a real sufferfest and I remember thinking that I wouldn’t do that again in a hurry… And I didn’t.

Until, with almost two months of consistent training under the guidance of a coach , I tackled the monster of a climb for the third time. This time I was on a Tacx Flux 2, a more entry-level smart trainer but more than appropriate for the task ahead.

Coach Lance said he thought I would do around 57 minutes. “I don’t need that kind pressure!” I typed to him in a WhatsApp message. Personally, I was aiming to break one hour. Armed with some experience of what to expect, I arranged my whole afternoon around the big test. Or so I thought. A client wanted new links in his weekly mailer while I was riding towards the climb. So I used the Zwift Companion App to keep doing U-turns as I sorted out the client’s new links while having a longer warm-up than intended.

My most recent effort which will form the basis of my personal numbers and how Coach Lance monitors my training and progress

Once on the climb, which is 12.24km long with an elevation gain of just over 1000 metres, I was focussed on pacing myself. I wanted to finish the final third of the climb at my absolute limits of everything but needed to ensure I didn’t conserve too much on the lower slopes and let the clock have too much leeway. I felt like I had started well, but you never really know for sure. During the middle third I increased my effort to a higher heart rate (168-172bpm) and more average power per segment (over 215W). The climb has 21 segments which are neatly counted down on the left-hand side of the screen with your stats. I felt composed, but was I too composed? Nah, I recall the last third being harder than you expect so I needed to keep something in the tank for that.

I upped my effort on the final third to what I felt was a heart rate I could maybe sustain to the top (over 175bpm) and an average power over 230W per segment. It was uncomfortable – as it should be – and I was hopeful that I would break an hour. But then it seemed to just go on and on and on and the top just didn’t seem to come. With about two segments left I watched in agony as the one-hour mark ticked by. Groan. I decided to just keep the effort as hard as possible and not let disappointment overcome me.

After what seemed like a lung-busting eternity, I finally reached the summit. The time: 1:05:40. I allowed myself a few moments of disappointment and then began to think about why I was over four minutes slower than my previous best, set more than a year before. At least I was quicker than my second attempt from earlier this year. That was a positive. I then looked to Coach Lance for some objective perspective.

“The improvement is there, so don’t be down. The form is still going to hit,” typed Coach Lance.

He sent me a couple of screenshot graphs that I didn’t really understand and said: “Power curve – you set the best 3 minutes – 1 hour power records on your Alpe du Zwift effort. It shows a massive jump in your fitness compared to the last three months.”

The one screenshot graph showed my sustained power on the climb: “See how the heart rate stays parallel the whole way up the climb gradient – this means you pushed exactly as hard as you should and paced perfectly. Super awesome! It shows experience. The promise is amazing! Don’t discount how good this improvement in your fitness is. It’s really good for what we are working towards,” typed Coach Lance.

Then he asked how I was feeling. This was the day after my massacre by the mountain. I said I was feeling quite good, quads a bit tender but otherwise good, which to me was a sign that I hadn’t pushed hard enough.

“No, that’s not a bad thing. The fitness we have built means we have developed a resistance to fatigue, so you’re good to go again today! It’s all very positive.”

Hoo boy! Such reassuring feedback backed by actual data from Coach Lance. Normally, in my self-coached world, I would have let that effort, which was less than I was hoping for, get me down and I probably would have lost some motivation and wallowed for a while in self pity. But the reinforcement from Coach Lance actually turned my negative mindset into a positive one and I was acutely aware that what I’m doing is a process and I, well, um, I need to trust the process…

To find out more about Lance’s coaching, head over here.