A numbers man

 “It’s about three things really: consistency with your training, rest and what you put into yourself. People I know who are good riders but, working in town, get drawn into a few pints after work every now and again and might take a week or two off occasionally and after a while that all takes its toll and you don’t end up fulfilling your potential.”

For most riders and a lot of racers this might be acceptable but Colin Ward isn’t about that. It is clear after an hour of his time that he wants to be the very best he can be and we were keen to find out how he does that while balancing family life and a full time job. Colin is a modest chap, about to turn forty this year, and from a solid sporting background, who has found that time-trialling is where he can flourish at the very highest level. A top-ten finish in the National 25, a win at the Tour of Cambridge Crono and a second place behind Alex Dowsett on the day he broke the British 25tt record were the highlights of 2016 and he hopes there are a few more years in him yet.

“I don’t just ride for the sake of it. Everything has a purpose. No, I don’t ride junk miles”. He smiles “I don’t have time for that!”

Colin really took up riding 6 or so years ago after dabbling with triathlon. Previously, he played a good standard of football representing Danbury Trafford in the Essex Senior League. “I was a good runner and a decent swimmer but I could see from my splits that my bike leg was letting me down. So I joined Essex Roads CC a few years back to improve that really and I’ve just gone from there.”

Colin’s triathlon career had to take a backseat as work and family life became more consuming and time more scarce. Swimming meant time-consuming trips to the pool and re-occurring ankle injuries meant that running was becoming more and more difficult despite being his strongest suit. Riding became his past-time and something that he quickly realised he was quite good at after all. He began competing and doing well and it is clear in our chat that his analytical mind (by day he is a mild-mannered accountant) has played a large part in his success. “I just love the culture and I enjoy the suffering, I think that’s really hard to describe to a lot of people. A lot of roadies are really strong riders; they’ll be able to come on strong in a ride time after time and then recover, but what I am trying to do is different.” Indeed it is. In the National 25 time trial last August, Colin rode into 7th position with an average speed a snip over 30mph. “I was possibly the only guy in the top ten not to have had the benefit of wind-tunnel or aero testing I’m told”. This was an effort that lasted nearly 50 minutes. To manage this he has to create a great deal of power over that time. Colin tells me that his FTP varies on his form but that it lies around at 330-340 watts with his VO2 max being at 80ml/kg/min (although this was a Garmin measurement rather than a lab test). He races aboard a Cervelo P5, a dedicated time trial bike, that he runs generally with a 55t chainring moving up to a 58 on faster courses.

Colin riding for Essex Roads in 2016

As to whether a repeat of such a strong season is on the cards is hard to predict. “I had a really good run into last season. I did really well (coming second overall) in the winter series at Hog Hill, although the casual bystander must have thought I didn’t know what I was doing, I knew what I was there for. I stayed healthy and upright for the most part which led me into the season really well.”

So how does he balance a demanding job, both time-wise and mentally, with training to get such results? “I do everything on power, I have power meters on all my bikes now. When I first started I was really calculated with my training, writing everything down on spreadsheets so I could see where I am but as I’ve got more experienced I am able to do it a bit more on feel.”

When asked if he fits in riding by commuting or night riding he scoffs at the suggestion, “No, I’m not into that. I tried the commuting thing but it’s a bit dangerous and you just can’t get the quality. All of my training, my quality work, is done on a turbo. I’ve got a little shed set up at home, it’s a bit depressing after a long day at work going into the shed but I’ve learned to love it. Working with the power meter you know where you are. You can’t get that on the road consistently. So with the time I have, it’s really the only way.”

We’ve met Colin mid-way through a club-run in Blackmore village. During our chat, two riders he knows walk in and are pretty shocked to see him static. It’s clear he doesn’t stop much and it’s a rare sight to see him in a coffee shop. It apparent he takes a bit of pride seeing how long he can go while fasted (not eating on a ride). If he can do three hours with just a water bottle he knows he’s going well, although there is always something stashed away in case of emergency.

Riding into the top ten at the National 25

“We’ve all had those days. One of the really important things is to listen to your body. If you’re mid-way through a session and it just isn’t working because you’re fatigued or whatever its better just to scrap it and come back the next day, or the next day and do it properly.” It is clear that Colin works on the principle of quality over quantity although there is something else that sets him apart and that is something that can’t be taught: the mental toughness that is needed to put yourself through the whole ordeal. To cope with this - again he uses the power meter. He can make sure that he doesn’t go out too fast when he is fresh and the adrenaline is pumping but really it’s the ability to endure the suffering that producing that power inflicts on him. He admits that this is really hard to quantify and to put into words but it is something he has learned to withstand and enjoy.

“Yeah, sometimes I think how good I could have been if I had started this a bit earlier in life. People have said to me that my ride behind Alex in the ECCA25, when he broke the British record, was in fact better than his, you know - bearing in mind all the support and things he gets being a pro.”

As time has passed, the last bit of the jigsaw that Colin has found the importance of has been rest. He is becoming a bigger and bigger believer in allowing a big session to “seep” into the system by doing as little as possible after it - although that’s easier said than done!

And as for this year:

Training has been going ok, the plan was to again do the winter series at Hog Hill to try an replicate that of last year with the high intensity efforts that only hog hill is capable of delivering. Unfortunately I did the first race and felt strong however crashed out in the second race so have been letting the wounds heal. I hope to be back for the last 4 weeks.

I’ve always got races that I’ll target and a bit of an unwritten rule that I won’t start time-trialling until the 1st April so we’ll see how we go.”

Colin Ward rides for Essex Roads Cycling Club.