Late winter and early spring are the best times to do an abundance of endurance riding to build the foundation of your aerobic base. Yet cold, wet, windy, unpredictable conditions can dissuade all but the most hardcore athlete. Just as challenging is the mind numbing option of doing those long rides indoors on a trainer. Because of these practical challenges, most coaches and training plans abandon long Zone 2 rides as part of age-group athletes base training, instead focusing on high bang-for-the-buck Sweet Spot intervals. It has become such common practice many people believe that extended time in Zone 2 is old school. Long, steady – middle of Zone 2 training- (not to be confused with long slow distance) is invaluable in building aerobic capacity and fatigue resistance – two big contributors to racing success.
One of the best discoveries I’ve made in my 33 years of bike training is using a cyclocross or gravel bike for my early season, long outdoor rides. These bikes are so versatile and comfortable it may become your favorite bike in your stable. Versatile because you can put anything from a fast rolling road tire for road riding or an aggressive knobby tire for riding on trails. Versatile because you can ride on roads you’d never consider on your road bike. Comfortable because as I recommend, you can install nice, wide bump-adsorbing gravel tires. Used cyclocross bikes are commonly found on Craigslist and eBay for sale between $300 – $800.
With a setup like I am suggesting you can really get away from traffic and onto some amazing routes where the hours will pass very quickly. Here in Indiana, we have hundreds of miles of unpaved, barely paved, and/or gravel roads where it’s common not to pass a single car on a day long ride. Check out RideWithGPS.com for routes in your area.
My recommended cyclocross bike setup for serious early season training is to install a set of the widest “gravel tires” that will fit on the frame. Your local bike shop can fix you up. Gravel tires have a bit of tread but are still smooth rolling. I use the 35mm Flintridge Pro by Kenda at around 28 psi and absolutely love them. Some cyclocross bikes have eyelets for installing fenders and fixing up your bike this way should be given some serious consideration since roads tend to be wet so often in the early spring.
The thing you have to wrap your head around is to let go of the idea of miles ridden, and instead focus on time ridden since you’ll be going slower. But slower is a good thing in cold weather. You’ll be more comfortable and it will be easier to dress appropriately than on a fast road or triathlon bike.
Adding long, solid zone 2 endurance rides to your base training will absolutely contribute to aerobic fitness and I think you’ll find riding a gravel/cyclocross bike can make this much more enjoyable. You may even discover it’s your favorite training!