If you are a highly competitive cyclist like me, then you are always looking for that extra marginal gain. Whether it’s that freshly waxed chain/aero helmet saving you a handful of watts, that new set of wheels saving a few hundred grams or that new supplement giving you that extra kick when you need it the most. A lot of the cycling products out there nowadays are just marketing snake oil, some of them are not.
Written by: Pascal Kwaks
Like many, of course, I would have preferred to become a professional cyclist, but unfortunately I only discovered my love for cycling at the age of 31. But hey, I can still look at what I can achieve, right?
Ever since I started cycling, I have tried almost every crazy “upgrade” out there to help me get faster, and trust me, the things I listed before are just a selection of what I have tried. While remaining within the sporting regulations, who doesn’t like taking a shortcut? But the truth is, nothing works better than good ol’ sweat and tears. In the end, it’s you who needs to put in the training hours. YOU, who drags yourself though another turbo trainer session or into the rain and endless headwinds. It took me a while before I saw the truth.
Few years back in the best shape
Let’s rewind a few years back. From 2008 until late 2015 I was in the best shape of my life. During my air force days, I was doing multiple sports almost every day of the week. I ran, swam and was hitting the gym. I didn’t look anything like Dwayne “The Rock”Johnson, but I had great stamina. I got to the point, where I was able to do a 5K run, and I was able to see 18 minutes on the clock. And that was without proper running training and when I was still smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.
But those days quickly disappeared when I got a desk job in IT. I kept my unhealthy lifestyle and at some point I was getting a bit worried about my health. Not that I was feeling any serious issues, but I realised that it probably wouldn’t stay the same.
Second-hand road bike
In 2019, I decided to make a change by buying a cheap second-hand road bike on the Dutch equivalent of Ebay for 300 euro. It wasn’t a lot, but I was happy and it sparked my love for cycling. It was super heavy, with a lot of dents and a triple chainring. Somehow indexing the gears never seemed to work, and a dropped chain was something I got acquainted with very soon. Around that time, I also quit smoking cold turkey. That and getting married were some of the better choices I have made in my life so far.
As the months and years progressed, I got increasingly competitive. I wasn’t doing any races yet, but the performance gains were more than enough to keep me striving for more. At some point, I felt that I needed more structure in my training plans, since just riding my bike wasn’t giving me the same performance increases anymore. Until now, I had never tried a training plan for a longer period of time, other than some testing with The Sufferfest, which I believe is now called Wahoo System.
Hired a cycling coach
I did something most people won’t do: I hired a cycling coach. After filling out a lengthy questionnaire, and a few days later, I had my first call with him. I learned that he was from Australia but was living in France and that he had worked with some Australian world tour pro’s in their youth years. So, a ton of experience and a very impressive resume! It wasn’t cheap, it cost me just over a hundred euro every single month.
What I chose was the lowest tier. The middle tier would give me double the amount of calls with the coach, and would allow for more monthly changes to the training plan. The most expensive plan had unlimited contact moments and plan changes. It also included a personalised food plan. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the exact prices, but the most expensive plan was around the 1000 euro mark. In my opinion, that’s only for the actual pro’s. And even then, I was wondering if there were cheaper alternatives.
So I bet you are wondering now: Was it worth it for me? Absolutely. After hitting a bit of a plateau, I started making some serious improvements again. In total, I think I hired him for about 1,5 years and almost every single FTP test I did saw me doing another personal best. Something else that was nice were the monthly calls. Whenever I would have a specific event coming up, I could consult my coach, and together we would come up with the best strategy.
Long term plan?
So what was my long-term plan? I would follow the world’s best in gravel cycling and see the likes of Laurens ten Dam and Peter Stetina doing incredible things. Laurens took 2nd place in Unbound gravel while being past 40! I’m not going to lie, my wildest dream, like many other people, is to do something similar. Maybe you are chuckling right now, and that’s ok, I’m still going to try.
And then… I decided to terminate my contract with my coach. But if everything was going so well, why quit? You never change a winning team, right? It was a leap of faith indeed. Probably it’s a bit exaggerated, but it felt like ending a relationship. It was hard pulling the trigger.
The reason I did this was because of two things: First, there’s the price. 100+ euro every month is a lot of money for most people, me included. And even though the personal contact is nice, I started to wonder if it’s really worth it. After all, I learned there are a lot of free and relatively cheap alternatives out there. One of the problems I had with these kind of plans, is that I didn’t have the knowledge to judge if they were any good or not. Who was making them? Somebody like me, or did the person have a solid background with academic titles in sports related studies? Something else that made me unsure, was the fact that these plans were often made for the masses. But would it also fit my goals and background?
Lack of flexibility
And then there’s the other factor: the lack of flexibility. Every month my coach would give me a new schedule which would go on for another month. Before my coach did all the planning, I would add special days to the calendar. For instance, when I would have a race, or when I couldn’t ride for various reasons.
The only problem is that sometimes I couldn’t foresee everything. There were times when the weather was so bad that I would not feel safe/comfortable riding my bike, or a day when I had to put extra hours in at work. When I would know this a few days ahead, I could write my coach a message, and he would change the schedule. But when it’s on the same day, that no longer works. I can’t expect the coach to monitor his e-mail 24/7. And remember, since I had the cheapest plan, I could only ask for changes once a month.
So after jumping into the void of being coachless, I signed up for something I heard about a few times: JOIN cycling. JOIN is a cycling app that automatically generates a training plan based on your level and availability. For me, it simply fills the missing gaps. I no longer have to maintain a relationship with my coach, and I have the ultimate flexibility in just one app. I think this is the future of getting better on the bike.
Onboarding at the JOIN Cycling app
When I first downloaded the app, I had to set up a goal. For 2023 I have two big goals, first to try and qualify for the UCI gravel world cup, the second: get a good result in Unbound gravel. For the world cup, I think I will do 2 or 3 qualifying races. I don’t know how strong the field is, and how many attempts I need. Maybe I get a lot of mechanical problems, who knows.
If I need to pick between qualifying for the world cup and Unbound, the second will always win. So I chose for the “One day event” goal in the app: Unbound. When you do that, it asks you for the date, distance, and elevation of the event. Another important thing the app wanted to know is how serious I was as a cyclist, based on the amount of hours that I’m willing to put it. Based on that, I fell into the pro bucket. Yeah… ahum.. Not an actual pro, but thank you for believing in me, JOIN.
Your weekly availability
After filling in some more details, the cycle starts and JOIN will ask you for your weekly availability:
This has to be my number one feature of the app. Even when I put in my availability for the week, I can still make adjustments on the same day, minutes before a planned ride. JOIN will do a complete overhaul for my schedule for that week, based on my latest input. How cool is that?! Something that is worth mentioning, is that setting your availability to 6 hours on a day, does not automatically mean that you will get a 6-hour ride. I just means that this is the maximum amount of hours that you have at your disposal.
I can also choose to ignore the planned ride completely and go freestyle. After each ride, JOIN will ask me for feedback on a scale of 1 to 10. 1 is when it felt like a really light recovery ride, 10 is when you gave it everything. In addition, you get a toggle switch where it asks you if you did the suggested workout.
And there you have it, your own personalised training plan:
For every workout, JOIN can tell you why it gives you this specific workout, and once you tap on them, you will get a detailed break-down:
If you set up your FTP and threshold heart rate in the app, all workouts will be modified to match your zones automatically. From there on, you will have the option to export a workout for different purposes, for instance, Zwift, Garmin, Wahoo and Trainingpeaks. I prefer to do my riding outdoors with my Garmin Edge device, so I pick Garmin. After the export is completed, the workout will be available in the Garmin Connect app under the workouts tab. From there you can sync it with your Garmin device. It just works.
Another useful feature in the app is that it shows you your initial and current level:
For me, this works very motivating. I don’t know what the algorithm is behind this bar, but the more hours I put in, the higher my score is. I also believe that the heart rate and power meter data of your previous workouts might come into play, but I cannot fully confirm that. Anyway, this stuff is very addictive because you’re always trying to get that number further up.
A good thing to note is that the creators of the app are still very active when it comes to further improvements. A couple of weeks ago I installed an update which had a really cool new feature. From now on, the app can tell you your estimated FTP, based on all the data it collects from all of your workouts:
Right now, I cannot say yet if this is accurate or not. My next FTP test is still a few weeks away, but things like these keep me hooked to JOIN.