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Lessons from the road: What a pro track cyclist learned from riding outside

When the velodromes closed, Kelsey Mitchell got out her road bike

Photo by: Kelsey Mitchell

When the pandemic hit in March, Canada’s national track team wasn’t able to access the Mattamy National Cycling Centre for three months—”It felt like a year,” jokes Kelsey Mitchell. The 27-year-old Pan-Am champ and world record holder will compete at her first Olympics in Tokyo, but she’s spent this unexpected year training for the pushed back competitions.

In a normal year the track team will do some riding outside, but their training looks quite different from the standard road cyclist. “I’ve done over 100km, but, like, only once,” says Mitchell. “Normally the longest we’ll go is probably about 75 to 85 kilometres.” This summer, with a closed velodrome, the track athletes had to figure out alternative and they significantly increased their time on the road.

“I love track cycling,” says Mitchell, “and I think, through the summer, I kind of grew to love road cycling as well.”

photo: Kelsey Mitchell

Zwift racing is hard for everyone

Anyone who’s tried Zwift racing knows how hard it can be. Mitchell is a track world record holder and still had a brutal experience trying the app. “I joined some crit races,” she says, “they’re only 50 minutes, but it was so hard. I was dying. I’m on the Canadian national team, I’m going to the Olympics and I could barely do these rides. There are people just doing these for fun—they’re completely different types of athletes for sure.”

Short, steep climbs are better than long steady ones

Milton, On., where Mitchell lives, is located on the Niagara Escarpment, one of the relatively flat province’s hillier regions. Mitchell took on Rattlesnake, one of the more well-known steep climbs in the region, for the first time this summer. “It was hard,” she says, “but that took me maybe what, 10 minutes at 300 watts?  I could do that much better than holding, say, 200 watts for hours.”

Kelsey Mitchell and Lauriane Genest. photo: Kelsey Mitchell

For track cyclists, especially sprinters like Mitchell, aerobic capacity is less of a priority than anaerobic capacity. She notes that for the Keirin they still need some aerobic capacity while the motor pacer brings them up to speed, but, “it’s nowhere near the extremes that the pursuiters need,” she says, referring to the more aerobically focused team pursuit event.

Mitchell says that sprinters try to make sure they don’t spend too much time on the road, at the risk of effecting their fast twitch muscles and explosiveness. “It wouldn’t be the worst thing if I did a three hour ride,” she says, “but we also have gym and track sessions on top of that, so we don’t want to focus too much energy on the road.”

photo: Kelsey Mitchell

Riding on the road helps with pedal efficiency and handling

After a summer of riding on the road, Mitchell says she thinks her pedalling efficiency has improved. “I was pretty good pedalling when I first started,” she says, “but obviously you can improve on that.” She also says outdoor riding has improved her handling. “Riding around people helped on the track and with the Keirin.”

It burns fat

Reflecting on her large block of road training, Mitchell noticed another side-effect. “I think it helped lean me out as well,” she says. “When you’re on the road you want to be lighter, it just helps, so doing so much of it we were training more in the fat burning zone. I was able to eat a lot and we were burning fat—it was great. Coming on to the track, I’m a bit lighter, but my power is still there.”

You can explore the beauty around you

Mitchell says that riding her local Milton roads, like Fourth line, can be a great experience “It’s beautiful in the fall, because of all the trees,” she says.

“It’s also a great way to see a country or see a place,” says Mitchell, reminiscing about road rides she did during a training camp in Portugal. Compared to a car it’s slower and easier to look around and take everything in. “And we go even slower than most of the roadies do,” she jokes.