The tyranny of the turbo

As I write – from the comfort of the sofa and the warmth of the living room – I can raise my head, peer  through the sliding door at the far end of the kitchen and see Jayne illuminated by the light from the house in the darkness of the yard. She pounds the pedals of her bike relentlessly, her face a twisted grimace, her hot breath exploding into mist as it hits the icy air. She drops her head, checks her watch and pushes harder, everything pulsating now.

This is the tortuous ritual of the turbo that takes place two, three times a week – whenever she can summon the will. For the non-cyclists among you, a little explanation: a turbo trainer is a device that holds your bicycle in a stationary position for indoor training. The back wheel of the bike is pressed against a flywheel that provides resistance as the bicycle wheel turns; the harder you pedal, the greater the resistance.

But a turbo trainer is not only for training indoors when it’s too wet or icy outside. It also enables you to do very specific training, usually in the form of sessions of prescribed length at prescribed efforts which allow you to lay down the different elements of athletic performance (aerobic efficiency, power, speed) in a measured way.  Jayne is currently midway through five sets of five-minute efforts at just over 90 per cent of her maximum heart rate. She takes a break of three minutes between each effort, then goes again. It’s tough, and it shows.

An hour ago it was me out there: three sets of eight-minute efforts at 88 per cent of my maximum heart rate – about 170 beats a minute. I hate it. Turbo training is a particular kind of tyranny. It’s not just that it’s hard and it hurts, but that it’s so utterly dispiriting. You make so much effort, but you go nowhere. There’s no scenery rolling past, no destination, no variation in gradient to offer you a different challenge, no let up; just a relentless, pulsating monotony. You count off the seconds and the minutes until the torture is over.

And at the end of it all there’s almost always disappointment – disappointment that you haven’t met your training targets for the week, that you didn’t go as hard as you should on Wednesday, that you’re only 13 weeks into your training programme when you should be 18 weeks in, that you’re always playing catch-up, that life got in the way again. For people who work full time, who have other interests, relationships to manage, pets to care for, social and family obligations to meet, troubles to deal with, busy lives to run, it’s hard to train consistently and well.  In a way you make do with what you can and hope that you’ve done enough to get it right on the day.

The idea behind training is that it eliminates uncertainty. The reality, of course, is that it’s as uncertain as anything else in life, even down to whether you will actually bother to do any today. I’m glad there’s an element of spontaneity here. This is the first year I’ve trained – because it’s the first year I’m planning to do any regular competitive cycling – and I find it boring and joyless and repetitive. Throughout this long, cold winter, all I’ve wanted to do is retreat into the warmth and wait for the sun to come. Then I can climb onto my bike and ride through the hills on a warm, bright day, enjoy the natural intervals of the road instead of grinding out the non-existent miles on a turbo trainer, over and over, in the suffocating darkness of the yard. It’s horrible, oppressive, the very opposite of liberty. I just want to ride. Roll on springtime.


6 thoughts on “The tyranny of the turbo

  1. I did a lot of trainer sessions in my youth. Fortunately, I now live in a place that rarely experiences what you would call winter. I agree with you, the natural intervals of the road are much better. You have my sympathies.

  2. Hi

    It’s not all bad, the great thing about the turbo is that (I think) it’s miles more efficient in terms of time than trundling around on the roads, and you’ll know most of the roads like the back of your hand anyway!

    No, I don’t mind the turbo, maybe it’s practice or maybe I’m half brain dead, I don’t know. I like the fact that I can train away in a targeted and efficient way knowing that when the time comes to be on the road again I will have the form I want, just as soon as I get my “road legs” back which takes just a week or so because the aerobic core is there ready and waiting.

    I also find the turbo gives me time to ponder all that is going on in life, to watch films or TV, to listen to music, or just to chill, or sweat, as the case may be 🙂

    Just another slant on it!


    • I’m sure you’re right and I’m sure I will feel the benefits come the spring. I’ve been riding on the road as well, but had to abort more rides this year than you can shake a stick at. I’m afraid I don’t use the turbo for steady riding, which may be why I dislike it so much – it’s all short and sharp and deeply unpleasant. This also means that I can’t possibly concentrate on films or TV while turboing. Jayne’s gone through an entire DVD of The Vicar of Dibley during a single session before now, and Michael Hutchinson claims to have learnt a language while pedalling away one winter. It’s all I can do to make myself get on it and turn the bloody pedals.

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