What does a pro cyclist’s life actually look like? Between the races, the results, and the long fights back from injury, what is the daily rhythm of a pro racer’s existence? What is the method that gets them where they need to be?
MAAP spoke to Abby-Mae Parkinson, of Lotto-Soudal and Trinity Racing, plus her partner, recently retired racer-turned-coach, Jon Dibben, about the way they train.
The British couple live together in the south of France and it’s difficult not to get a little bit jealous of their ‘beach + bicycles’ lifestyle. But of course, there’s a daily routine they stick to, a dedicated rubric for success on the bike – and at times it can begin to wear you down.
In the pro-life, there’s no skipping a day (or week) just because you don’t feel like it.
“Even if you’re really struggling you still go out, it’s just a mindset that we all have. It is our job. It’s the same as if you work in an office – just because you don’t want to go to work that day, you still do it and it’s the same for us.”
Dibben left the professional ranks at the end of 2020, but he can easily recall the things that kept him going on those days it felt like a grind.
“For me there was always something at the end of it, you had a race you were going to, or you were looking forward to team training camps during the winter. Even when you’re swinging through the hard phases you’re always looking ahead to what’s coming up.”
Having good ride partners is, Dibben says, one of the best ways to counteract that voice in all of our heads that says, ‘maybe skip the ride today’.
“Ideally, they’re going to be your friends. If you’re a pro, normally you’re going to ride with other pros – especially if you’re living down here [in southern France]. That just helps.
There’s times, maybe you’ll be doing three days in a row of long blocks of hours, you definitely want to get a ride in a group. Even if you just go out and do the first two or three hours with people, it makes a big difference because you start playing little mind games if you’re by yourself for the whole time for like five hours, three days in a row.”
Besides great kit, what does a rider need to succeed when they’re training hard?
“It’s a bit of a cliche, but ‘happy head, happy legs’,” says Parkinson. “If you’re not in the right headspace, you’re never gonna get a good session out.”
Dibben has always focused on the simple things.
“Stick to the basics; eat well, sleep well, get the training in. Even the hardest bits, it’s still simple stuff. Everything else falls into place. That’s it, it’s all you need.”
Dibben also benefited during his career from a genuine love of competition, which he says is the best training you can have.
There is no one-size fits all approach to training, and the difference between men’s and women’s racing illustrates this.
“Women’s racing is so different, and I think it’s important that we recognise that. Probably the most efficient thing for us to do is a split day, where you ride two to three hours in the morning, and then in the afternoon a Zwift ride – that’s one of my coach’s favourites!”
Does she have a recommended Zwift session?
“The Wrangler is absolutely awful. I’m not sure I can ‘recommend’ it, but it’s a sort of half feelgood factor afterwards and half ‘you’re gonna have to sit down in the shower’!”
Once the day’s ride is done, it’s all about recovery. Indeed, professional cyclists tend to recover just as hard (or at least with as much focus) as they train. Of course, when we say recovery, it’s not all about the physical.
“Mental recovery is so important. A couple of months ago I had glandular fever and mentally I was so ‘over it’. I wasn’t looking forward to riding my bike. Your head needs to be there as well.
“As much as it could be recovery to just sit on the sofa all afternoon,” Parkinson continues. “Sometimes it’s nice to go down to the beach or go to a café and do something that’s mentally stimulating or different. Something to look forward to, because it’s giving your head a recovery from thinking about cycling, from thinking about training and the bike.”
Parkinson sums up the secret sauce to recovery very neatly.
Dibben, who by contrast to Parkinson says he is “very good” at doing nothing, explains his own routine.
“It’s a good life for me; just go out, ride your bike in the morning and then sit on the sofa and find out what sport is on to watch for the day.”
Parkinson interjects here, “And then fall asleep!”
Professional riders pay close attention to what they put in their bodies, but Dibben says there are no real ‘secrets’ to eating right.
Parkinson chimes in on this subject too.
“We are all human at the end of the day. I have a sweet tooth and I’m really not into pasta, rice, like that’s an effort for me to have that. I’d much rather get my calorie content from a bar of chocolate, but that’s the difference between being a professional and not.”
Since leaving the professional sport behind, Dibben says he certainly does not miss the dietary side.
“I think probably for the last three or four years of my career, almost every lunch after a ride I would have had rice and tuna, or rice and eggs. I’ve not had it since my last training ride in September 2020. I’ve had enough rice and tuna lunches for the rest of my life, I think.”
Our conversation with Parkinson and Dibben ends with advice, the things they wish they’d known as younger racers coming up.
While Dibben says self-knowledge is the most useful characteristic that will sustain a rider through their professional career.
“No matter how young you are, as an athlete you've got to understand who you are and how you feel, and what that means. Once you understand what can work for you, that’s really the key to it all.”
I’ve had some problems with my sciatic nerve, recently but I’ve been to see a really good physio in Monaco who has given me a lot of back mobility exercises. It involves a little bit of stretching my hamstrings and calves, different routines of moving my back and ending up with some planks, that just strengthens your back and your core as well. A bit of an allrounder.
Quadruped opposite limb raises
From all fours, raise your right arm and left leg straight out, keeping them as close to the midline of your body as possible. This is a good back mobiliser pre-ride.
Standing back extension with band
Secure your resistance band to something at ground level, then grab it with both hands. Face the anchor point of the band, place one foot slightly behind the other, then lean forward to a point that feels natural. Brace your core and straighten your back so you’re standing straight up and the band is ‘pulling’ back. Don’t hyper-extend your back.
Lunging calf stretch against a wall
12 reps per set
This one should be familiar to every cyclist. Face a wall with your feet together, then swing the right foot back a natural distance, don’t try to step too far. Shift your torso forward so your balance is over your left knee, and as you do so you’ll feel your right calf stretch. Feel free to lean against the wall to keep your balance. Hold the stretch for 20 seconds. Swap legs and repeat.
Lying hamstring stretch with band
12 reps per set
Lie on your back and put your leg up in the air. Loop your band over the ball of your raised foot and fold one ends of the band in each hand. As you pull gently against your foot, you’ll get an amazing stretch in your calf. Keep your raised leg straight (with a slight bend in your knee so it’s not locked out) and your other leg flat! Then swap over.
45 seconds for each exercise, with 30 seconds as rest between sets.
I do a regular plank, then right and left side planks. I’ll combine those three as a set. If you want to really push it and strengthen your back more, you can add in single arm planks, a side plank with dips, a plank with leg raises and side planks with leg raises!
Since leaving the pro peloton, Jon has been using the expertise he gained as a World Tour and Olympic athlete to help others reach their potential. If you’re an intermediate rider looking to up your game, this one-week programme might be just the tonic you are after.
A 3 hour session on the road starts the seven day block...with intervals. Set up your ride to include three sets of 12 mins and rotate between 10 seconds of sprinting followed by 20 seconds of spinning. In between sets, ride in zone 3.
This is a long day, set by you and your goals, but remember if you race long you also need to train long. Aim for a total hitout of 3 to 6 hours. I’m a firm believer that a solid 6 hour day is as beneficial for the lags as it is for the head and it will pay off for those long races.
After a long day in the saddle on day 2, now’s the time to get in a double day, that is adaptable depending on your goals. Your morning should consist of a TT session or 2 easy hours on local roads. For the afternoon, turn your attention to some time on Zwift or head to the gym to lift.
Rest day. I always think the makeup of a rest day should be down to the individual rider, how they feel and their local conditions. If you need a full day off to recharge, take it. But rest can also mean up to 3 hours ‘steady’ if you are looking to get some extra hours in.
This high intensity session simulates a race environment - cadence or even motor pacing if it is available to you. Total time on the bike is 2.5 hours. If you are a pro, motor pacing is the closest you can get to racing in training. If you don't race, your cadence session will need to include both low and high cadence efforts.
More efforts, this time over a total ride time of 3 hours. Your efforts should include two sets of 6 x 10 second sprints and another 3 sets of 6 minutes, alternating between 20 seconds of sprint and 40 seconds of spinning. The key to this session is to vary the sprints (seated/standing, slow/high cadence). This workout is an absolute staple for all levels of rider from youth racing to the World Tour.
Rest day. You’ve earned it.
For more, hunt down Jon’s coaching business Performance by Dibben at www.performancebydibben.com - you can even purchase an online plan.
This is a bit of a classic Monaco cycling route and one of our go-to’s. It’s just 77 kilometres, but it packs a massive punch with over 1,600m of climbing. It’s a ‘Day 1’ option from Jon’s plan, but I find almost any excuse I can to ride this one.
Leave Monaco and head north out of town. The first of two cols on the route is the iconic Madone, well-known as a training climb by anyone living in this part of the world. After that is the Braus, a proper high mountain climb that is sure to test your legs even on your best day.
The Braus is a bit of a brute but the reward is immense with almost 35 kms of descent back to the seafront at Menton. Be sure to grab a coffee in Menton, from one of the great cafes overlooking the Cote d’Azur if you’re flagging.
From there you can ride around the cape at Le Corbusier before coming back towards Monte Carlo. Job done.
MAAP Braus Loop
To train at your best, you need to eat at your best. There are a lot of experts who can devise a healthy eating plan for you that can complement your training, but for me, there is no replacement for fresh, natural ingredients.
Abby-Mae’s Smoothie Bowl
There is nothing that can surpass a smoothie bowl as my go to post ride meal. My favourite is super eeeeasy, thick and edible with a spoon! There are endless ideas for customising it to your own taste - and on rest days you can load it up and take it to the next level.
Prep time: 4 mins
Wiz time: 1 min
1) Grab a handful of frozen pineapple, half an apple, a peach or a nectarine if you feel adventurous and half a frozen banana. Here’s my pro tip: peel the banana, cut into chunks and store in the freezer for later use (it almost doesn’t matter how old they are!).
2) Grab the blender, throw all the fruit in there and add some water and a scoop of protein powder. Me, well I go for vanilla or strawberry, but maybe chocolate is perfect for rest days.
3) Give it all a wiz in the blender to your desired consistency.
4) Serve in a bowl, grab a big spoon, and maybe even a dollop or two of Greek yoghurt. Eat and enjoy.
Jon’s BBQ Tuna Steaks
Tuna is our all star dinner for the middle of a training block. It is packed with protein, vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids and iron. Other than improving heart health, the fatty acids alleviate muscle inflammation caused by intense training. Meanwhile, protein boosts metabolism and helps repair tissues.
We love the tuna steak from Ventimiglia, that we buy just across the border in Italy at the market. Your nearest market should have local options, but if not, you can substitute for halibut, yellowtail or even swordfish.
This recipe is quick and we love to add seasonal veggies all cooked on the BBQ, helping them retain a lot of their nutrients.
Prep time: 10 mins
Cooking time: 5 mins
1) Salt the tuna lightly and set aside at room temperature for 5 mins.
2) On your pre-heated barbecue, sear each side of the tuna for 30-60 seconds.
3) Monitor your tuna for your preferred finish. For me, the steaks are best when seared on the outside, but a little raw inside. I’ve recently invested in a food thermometer and find perfection at 110°F / 43°C inside.
4) Don’t forget to multi-task. At the same time as the tuna is cooking, add some vegetables to the grill. Don’t overthink it, but be sure to choose local, in-season produce. Tenderstem broccoli, zucchini and capsicum are all good options. You want them warmed through and a little crispy on the outside.
5) Set the tuna aside for a couple of minutes before serving with couscous (I think you should be able to read the instructions on the packet) and your favourite large green salad.
The role that music can play in cycling (and my life) can’t be underestimated. Popping some tunes on is exactly the motivation I need some days to get out and ride. Here’s my go to playlist.