Rip A Toe? | Chris Ronan

Continued from Bicycling and the X Factor

“Rip a toe? Who? OK, Dr. Bob, I’ll go see him.”

I don’t know how I
ended up there, but I’m sure I got Mark’s address, used a paper map,
and drove to his gym, the Wichita Falls Athletic Club.

Frankly, I was
intimidated as hell. Skinny roadies stayed away from iron plates,
barbells, and muscled-up dudes. They scared us. And Rippetoe scared
me – because I was skinny and wet behind the ears when it came to
strength training.

I’m fairly certain Mark
had just done a set of crunches with a big plate on his chest. So he
may have been red in the face and sweaty. Mark can correct me if I
recall his reply incorrectly — I asked him why he was using a plate
to do crunches. Probably because it looked really hard, and the
thought of him making me do it terrorized me. To Mark’s reply –
“Because I fucking hate working on abs, so I add the plate in order
to do less of them.”

Oh shit…

A dude named Cardell
was standing there too – a super fit guy I’d seen around town. I’m
not gay, and there would be nothing wrong with it if I were, but
Cardell was a super handsome dude I’d see out and about town with the
most beautiful women. To a guy like me, he had it all put together
and was strong as hell. So, I was doubly intimidated by the mutants
before me.

Well, it was not so
bad. Mark spoke in a language I found easy to understand. Within the
first 15 minutes, he told me, and I’ll paraphrase, but this is likely
pretty damn accurate:

“Now, Ronan, you
cyclists are all afraid of the gym. You don’t like all this iron
because you are afraid you will gain weight, which will slow you down
– but, you see, that’s just wrong. Look at the size of you. What
we’re going to do is remove the V6 engine and replace it with a V8.
With your frame, you can only go so fast with a V6. Now, you might be
a little bit heavier, but you will be a hell of a lot faster.

“You’ll win more

I’d love to tell you he
had me at hello, but I don’t recall the hello. Mark seemed like a guy
who knew what he was talking about – and if he told you to do
something, you kinda had to do it. Skinny roadies should not argue
with properly strong people such as Mark Rippetoe.

Up until that point in
my entire life, I’d never felt welcome in a gym. Being a
cross-country runner or a skinny road cyclist, you never felt like
you belonged in a gym, let alone a gym with all those iron plates and
barbells. But Mark and guys like Cardell were super open to the idea
of training someone from a completely different – and to them I’m
sure goofy – sport. Suddenly, I was in the cool kids club, and we
were moving full speed ahead. It felt like the strong men were on my
team, and we were quite focused on seeing what we would do together.

Down the Dogmas

Trapped within the
dogmas of how cyclists are supposed to become fast, that little voice
was telling me this was all wrong. But it seemed so wrong; it had to
be right.

So, I enrolled at
Wichita Falls Athletic Club, trained with Mark, and met a few who
became my close friends. Shit, I even met my wife in that gym. I’m
pretty sure Mark was there the night I met her and, being the wise
man that he is, knew my days of racing would be closing soon after

However, there was
still time for the point to be proven. The dude was damn right. We
immediately cut my miles in half while, at the same time, he designed
a very specific workout program for my skinny roadie’s ass.

That’s right. 400 miles
per week became 200 (or less), including race days. To top it off,
there were no breaks on leg day, no matter my racing schedule. We did
“leg days” for nearly two years. The most challenging leg days
were always on Mondays because it gave me time to recover before each
coming weekend of racing.

And yes, I was expected
back at the gym on Monday after racing for two teams: my collegiate
team (Team Arrow) and the trade team (Gatorade Chili’s) with Chris
Hipp. Sometimes, there would be four races over the weekend.
Saturdays would generally be a collegiate road race in the morning
south of Austin, followed by hauling ass in the car, bicycle in the
trunk, to race with my Gatorade Chili’s team in North Austin for a
Pro 1-2 criterium in the early afternoon. Repeat this on Sunday.
Then, I’d beat feet to Wichita Falls for classes and leg day with
Rippetoe on Monday. Stage races over the weekend made Monday-Leg-Day
a helluva lot more painful. But we did them.


Every aspect of how I
would ride and race my bicycle changed. For those familiar with the
“attack,” – you might picture a pack of skinny roadies
where one or a few at a time would surge ahead of the field. There
would often be a momentary gap between the leaders and the rest of
the pack, usually followed by the leaders being “reeled in”
only for the process to be repeated. This would occur until the
leaders stayed away, and their team would “block” for them.
Or, the field would remain together for a sprint finish.

Back to the “attack.”
When you see a bicycle racer surge ahead of the field, this is called
an “attack.” We typically picture this as the cyclist
standing up, leaning over the bars, and sprinting ahead of the group.
Herein came the most crucial change in how I performed the “attack”
resulting from my strength programming.

A successful or
damaging attack needed two very important things to work. One, the
timing needed to be just right, and you had better be in the correct
position when it was time to go. This came down to strategy and the
ability to read the race.

Two, you needed to go
fast… really fucking fast to snap the rubber band and break the
will for those you were attacking to be able to chase you.
This came through Rippetoe’s programming.

Here’s where One and
Two come together: One is the timing and positioning being
identified; a sneaky attack is better than standing and flailing
around on your bicycle. You and the bicycle make a lot of noise, and
the act of standing up signals everyone in the race to know exactly
what you are doing. If you can do this (here comes Two) while seated
and go just as fast, or faster, you get a couple-second advantage…
and that’s huge. See what happens here? One plus Two is deadly.

After three months of
Monday-Leg-Days at the Wichita Falls Athletic Club, I added the
advantage of attacking while seated with similar power to that of a
standing attack. All those squats with the puke bucket next to my
squat rack turned my attacks into 40+ mile-an-hour attacks while
remaining seated. Mark probably had this built into the equation
also, but at six feet seven inches tall, guess what?? I found power I
never knew existed and could launch while staying on my seat, low on
my bars, and slippery as hell in the wind. Standing up for me was
like sprinting with a parachute on my back, whereas staying seated in
a deep tuck with my newly discovered power had an upshot of a gained
aerodynamic advantage.

To be clear, my attacks
were not always seated. But the mechanics of how it worked for me,
and with my build, made seated attacks better when beginning from a
high speed where aerodynamics were at play. Even attacks where the
initial explosive act was required on a steep incline were quickly
followed by the mid- and ending pattern of the attack being from the
seated and tucked position.

“Ronan” This Up

All of this came
together at our (my first with Team Arrow) conference championships
that season. Of course, I had to “Ronan things up” the
Thursday night before. When I was getting comfortable and confident
with Mark, I made an error while taking down a rack after my bench
press. While removing the 45-pound plate, I’d forgotten that there
was a quarter plate on the outside. To Mark’s credit, he taught me
damn well how to rack and un-rack my weights. But I was goofing
around and not paying attention. As soon as the 25-pound plate hit
the top of my foot — yes, it was stunningly painful, but at that
moment, I could feel Mark from across the room staring a hole through
me. I thought I was about to be banned for life from his gym.

It was a terrible
example I had just set. Sure, I did a really dumb thing, and Mark
would tell me about that instantly. But he was genuinely concerned
that I might have broken my foot. We sat there and iced it – of
course, he chastised me some more as the hematoma grew to the point
where I could not put my shoe on. However, we both had something to
prove with this little bicycling-specific strength training program.
The following Friday, I had to leave with my team to compete in the
Conference Championships in San Marcos, Texas.

I could not get the
shoe straps to close on my right foot for these races as it was too
swollen, so those Velcro straps flapped in the wind all weekend. In
the first race, the criterium, I won after lapping the field,
followed by a win the following morning in the road race by several
minutes. It’s a good thing Mark’s program gave me the strength to
attack from the seated position because it’s hard to do a standing
attack on a bicycle with one shoe untied.

There’s something
poetic about how that all came together. As if to force the point of
dumping skinny roadie dogmas, the strategy and the power had come
together. While most of my roadie friends back in Dallas thought I
was crazy for cutting my miles and getting under the bar, the quarter
plate dropping on my foot was likely the universe’s way of proving
the point of the program, proving Mark was right, and proving that
sometimes you need to take the road less traveled to find the right
path. But it worked that weekend because never did my ass need to
leave the saddle for those wins.

That weekend for Team
Arrow, Rippetoe, Dr. Clark (who was there for the event), and myself
was a turning point in what would become a belief system to last a
lifetime. For me, in particular, the discipline involved in making
the most perfect possible repetitions has been a life lesson I’ve
taken with me and today use every day in my career and in how I deal
with the absurdity of trying to be a “grown-up” on this
marble in the sky called Earth.

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