That which can be measured can be improved.
The amateur cyclist now has access to performance data that five years ago was beyond the scope of ProTeams or national federations.
Modern cycling has been characterised in large part by a move to more scientific training methods. The sport’s early obsession with mileage, followed by less savoury methods of improving performance, have been largely replaced in the last 10 years by carefully controlled regimes, centred on power output.
It’s the philosophy that underpins training at Athlete Lab, the sophisticated indoor cycling centre on Cannon Street, in the heart of the City of London, and one of three worldwide, with centres also in Singapore and Sydney. A fourth Lab is planned for Canary Wharf.
Shane Sutton is Technical Director at British Cycling, and a figure as synonymous with a decade of dominance for the track team and Team Sky’s first Tour de France victory as any athlete.
He is also designer-in-chief of the training programmes at Athlete Lab, where he is a shareholder. The Lab offers, in the simplest terms, an opportunity to train to the same philosophy as Wiggins, Trott, et al.
“We bring everything that we did with Brad into the Lab,” Sutton says. “I love the Lab. I wish we had one in Manchester.”
All of which sets the scene for our own visit, when we step inside its low-lit confines and climb aboard one of the stationery bikes that fill the first floor and occupy a second area in the basement.
The bikes are as fundamental to the Athlete Lab philosophy as Sutton’s coaching programmes. Critically, they are ‘real’ bikes, with contact points as adjustable as a road bike: the same gears, the same STIs (for Shimano riders, at least).
If gear selection provides a fine control on resistance, the roller beneath the rear wheel offers a more heavyweight intervention, and is applied automatically, in line with the programme being followed.
Riders train as a class, but clever use of data – another Athlete Lab fundamental – means that each rider’s power, cadence, and heart rate is displayed on the giant screen that dominates each of the riding areas. You ride together, but the focus is very much on individual performance.
Athlete Lab offers a range of programmes, whose names offer a clue to the suffering that awaits. The HIIT Hurt Box, for example, is an interval session comprised of a series of high intensity sprints. Ironmania, by contrast, is focussed on building strength. All are based around Functional Threshold Power, and riding above or below it, to stimulate adaptation and recovery.
“All of that ‘over/under’ type of training, the stuff that Brad and I did during the build up to the  Tour with Tim [Kerrison], we’ve brought to these programmes,” Sutton explains.
The FTP test lasts 20 minutes and is either a painful necessity, or an invaluable tool for measuring progress, depending whether you have just started the test or finished it.
After 10 minutes, it seems impossible to continue for as long again. The data records this mental wobble, and the graph generated from my session shows a significant drop in power and rpm at this critical juncture. The coach tells me it is a common occurrence.
My eyes remain fixed on two values on the screen, and maintaining both at 90 percent: the FTP value and the RPM. Naturally, this becomes harder as the session wears on. I downshift to maintain cadence, but find I’m working harder to maintain FTP. I shift back up to the original gear and focus on pedal stroke, but within a few revolutions I’m ‘mashing’.
I realise how terrible I must look, rocking in the saddle and pedaling with all the panache of someone treading grapes. The Giro plays on the screen in front of me, but I spend most the session staring at the back of my eyelids, opening my eyes sporadically to check the numbers, but never, never looking at the time remaining.
Once the 20 minutes are up, however, my instant reaction is that I could have ridden harder. There is a method to riding an FTP test, I’m assured, though being too canny defeats its purpose. It is supposed to hurt.
On the bike training is only one part of the Athlete Lab experience, however. The focus placed by ProTeams (and, of course, by British Cycling) on core strength and even leg strength is shared at Cannon Street, with an area for off-the-bike training.
All of which offers a one-stop shop for the London-based rider with improvement in mind. The one thing that Athlete Lab cannot offer is a substitute for hard graft. That is down to the rider alone. It is worth it.
“You’ve got to be in control of your desire. Men and women who go to the gym become addictive. Athlete Lab can be very addictive,” Sutton warns.
As addictions go, it’s likely to be among the most healthy, and the average Londoner’s expenditure on coffee, or cigarettes, or alcohol might cover the monthly membership fee.
Athlete Lab ambassador Shane Sutton will speak at the 1 Classic, an intimately curated show of road cycling’s most desirable brands, to be held at Vinopolis, London from November 19 to 21, 2015. For more information, visit 1classic.cc.
That which can be measured can be improved.