Training Plan: Why Gravel World Champ John Borstelmann uses cross training

By Chris Knight | 8 Minute Read

John Borstelmann has graduated from commuting 6-miles to middle school on a battered bike to winning the 2019 Gravel World Championships over a distance of 240km.

It has been a swift rise to the top for someone who didn't start cycling properly until he was 22 and remarkably he didn't start a race until he was 24 (incidentally, he won his first two events - a Category-5 road race and a time trial, both in 2015). 

We spoke to John to hear about his rise and to find out how he trains for the gruelling demands of racing, both on gravel and on the road...

 

Hey John, thanks for joining us and it's great to have you aboard Team PH this season. Let's start by taking a look at your training plan - do you manage to fit much cross-training in each week or are you a man who likes to log the hours on the bike? 

Thanks guys, it's a good question. I find that the more different ways I'm able to exercise off the bike, the stronger and more comfortable I feel on the bike.

I enjoy hiking and climbing especially, and I have been doing part-time construction work to help pay the bills.

As far as cross-training that's geared specifically towards cycling, in the past I've lifted weights. But with my focus on gravel racing this year, my coach suggested “barre method” classes (which is sort of like ballet and Pilates) as a way to strengthen prime movers, core, and scaffolding, without the kind of weight gain or lactate production increase that typically follows traditional weight lifting programs.

The main benefits of cross-training are improved flexibility and strength of the core and “stabilizer” muscles, which are crucial to pedalling efficiency and comfort during long hours in the saddle.

Also, as someone who loves exercising in general, it's fun to mix it up and do something different with my body.

 

Couldn't agree more. So it sounds like your fitting a lot in from week-to-week, and how does that reflect in what you're doing in training at the moment? 

I follow the training advice of my coach Tim Fleming at Endurance PTC in Mill Valley, CA.

Typically, I spend between 15 and 25 hours per week on the bike.

In addition, I do maybe 30-60 minutes of core work and stretching almost every day, and two 1-hour sessions of barre method each week.

I try to get some walking in on a daily basis as well. Fortunately, I recently moved to the Central Coast area of California, where the weather is suitable for riding outside almost every day.

My weeks vary a lot, but I'll typically have one rest day, 2-3 rides in the range of 4-5 hours, and 3-4 rides in the range of 2-3 hours.

Day Session
Monday Rest day
Tuesday 3-hour ride
Wednesday 1-hour barre method
2-hour ride
Thursday 5-hour ride
Friday 4-hour ride
Saturday 1-hour barre method
2-hour ride
Sunday 3-hour ride

 

There's some pretty big sessions in there, is your commitment to training where your nickname 'Gladiator' came from? 

As my Panaracer/Factor teammate/manager Bob Cummings would put it, I’ve got “fire” when it comes to bike racing. I’m not afraid to unleash my emotions in appropriate situations.

During one of my first gravel races, this “fire” came out on full display when I mis-shifted on an untimely hill soon after finally catching up to the race leader.

Bob happened to be right there to witness the moment, filming it while the race photographer caught me in the middle of dropping a massive “f-bomb” (not directed at anyone in particular).

I ended up winning the 119-mile race in an all-out sprint finish, and I’ve been “Gladiator,” at least to Bob, ever since.

 

 

Ha! We look forward to seeing some of that 'fire' this year! And at which races should our readers be looking out for you in 2020?

In 2020 I hope to get on the podium at all of the flatter gravel races that I go to, so the Mid South, Dirty Kanza, Gravel Worlds, the Rift, and SBT GRVL.

I hope to refine my hydration/nutrition strategies and streamline my mechanical and tyre setups to avoid some of the issues I had last year.

 

Ah yes, there was an unfortunate tyre problem in your first race of 2020. What happened there? Were there lessons to be learned or is it a case of ‘parking’ that one and moving on to the next race?

Instead of switching to a wider tyre (38mm) before the race, I chose to save time by running the ones I had already installed (35mm). I also decided not to “top off” my tyre sealant before the race, for a couple of reasons. 

The puncture I had was small enough that sealant would have fixed it if I’d had enough in the tyre. I also decided to use a new design of plug kit that I hadn’t used before, which ended up being too large to fit the puncture.

Finally, I only brought one CO2 cartridge and no hand pump, so when my CO2 inflator malfunctioned, and I wasted my only cartridge, I was stuck waiting for someone to stop to help me inflate my tyre with the inner tube I was forced to install.

I learned to always top off sealant before races, go with my gut on tyre size, always bring a hand pump, and practice with whatever plug kit I choose to bring.

 

Sounds like a frustrating day but a good learning experience nonetheless. With what you've learned over the past few years of riding in mind, what are your hopes in the sport going forward? 

I hope to race professionally for the next decade. Gravel is promising right now, but I also love road racing. I will try to be flexible and choose whichever path allows me the most opportunity, satisfaction, and fun. After that I may decide to pursue a long-term career as a team director, coach, or mechanic.

 

And finally, we wondered where you stand on recent comments from the UCI which suggested that they would consider holding a 'UCI Gravel World Championship'? 

I wonder how the UCI would go about licensing and qualifying riders for an event like that.

Would they hold some sort of a gravel race series or introduce an annual gravel race calendar like they do for other disciplines? Or would they just hold one single race?

Would it be a self-supported race? How long would it be? What would the course be like?

I saw some backlash online from people wishing gravel would keep to its grassroots origins and from people who seem to have a grudge against the UCI.

With the explosion of gravel as the hot new discipline, there's serious money to be made. The existence of a UCI Gravel World Championship race might legitimise the sport in the eyes of the international community.

I think the upper echelons of the road cycling community will never be truly attracted to gravel because it lacks the hyper-competitiveness and excitement that drives racing at the WorldTour level.

Finally, I think that a UCI-sanctioned gravel race wouldn’t be a 'gravel event' in the same sense as Dirty Kanza or Gravel Worlds.

Without the riders who sign up for participatory purposes only, the atmosphere and magic of the 'gravel race' wouldn’t be the same at all. 

I think a UCI gravel race would feel just like a UCI road race but with fatter tyres and hydration packs.

 

It certainly feels like an interesting time for the sport and we're excited to be working with you going forward, John (or should that be Russell Crowe aka 'The Gladiator'?). 

Chris Knight - Marketing Manager

Chris Knight

Marketing Manager

Chris has an MSc in Sport and Exercise Psychology from the University of the West of England, Bristol and is an NCTJ-accredited journalist. He's had work published in The Guardian, The Sportsman, All Out Cricket magazine and more. He's particularly interested in the mental side of sport.

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