Champion Coaching

Former pro and now respected coach Dean Downing talks about training his first world champion. There are lessons to be learned from what he says for everyone.

Words: Cycling Legends
Photos: Andy Jones

Most coaches never get a world champion, and most who do wait years for it to happen, but former national circuit race champion Dean Downing was only in the business a couple of years before Ben Tulett won the 2018 junior world cyclo-cross championships. This is their story, told by Coach Dean.

“I’ve known Ben Tulett and his brother Dan since they started riding back around 2007. Their father, Allister Tulett is a good friend of mine, and I was aware of Ben and Dan starting racing at Herne Hill, and that they were doing cyclo-cross. Then they started circuit racing and Dan won the circuit championships for 10,12,14 and 16 year olds, with Ben winning national youth titles after him.

“I just kept my eye on them really, and once Dan got a Great Britain selection we started texting each other, just well done messages and things like that. In the meantime I started my coaching business, and in January 2017 I went to the national cyclo-cross championships in Bradford and saw Dan come second in the junior race. A few weeks later he was second in the junior world cyclo-cross championships.

Image of Dan and Ben Tulett
                                                          Dan Tulett                                                       Ben Tulett

“I sent Dan a well done message again, and that was when I got more involved with Ben. Up until then they’d both achieved what they had by just going out and riding their bikes. They’d used heart rate monitors a bit, but never used any kind of power meter. It was amazing how well they had done.

“So I spoke to Alistair and said I’d be interested in working with Ben, and in him using a power meter, which I’d learned to use when I was associated with Jon Sharples and his coaching company Trainsharp. I’ve set up my own coaching business now, Downing Cycling, but Jon and Sean Yates taught me a lot when I coached under the Trainsharp name. They also taught me about power meters, how to use them, and how to use the numbers they produce.

“So I got Ben to do the standard FTP test using a power meter and heart rate monitor, so we had a baseline power output and heart rate for 20 minutes to work with. FTP is a key test for all endurance cyclists. I told Ben what information to send me about his training, so he started sending me numbers week by week. By doing that I was learning about him, but he was also learning about himself. 

Image of Ben Tulett

“Then every eight weeks or so Ben did a re-test on his FTP, so we always had up to date numbers to work with, which is very important when you are training with power. It was important too, because I based his training around his FTP, so the varying intensities in each session were expressed as a percentage for his FTP.

“But as we developed his training I felt I needed to know more about the specific demands of cyclo-cross. I’ve never raced in cyclo-cross, so I asked Ben to race with a heart rate monitor, he has a power meter on his road bike but not his ‘cross bikes. Then when I had data from a few races I asked him how the races felt in relation to a World Cup ‘cross race. We talked a lot about how he felt in races, and if he went too hard and blew.

“From the heart rate spikes and other information I saw that going flat-out from a standing start for half a lap, which is about five minutes, is crucial. Flat-out sprint power, and going really hard for one minute are crucial elements in cyclo-cross too.

Image of Ben Tulett

“With that information I put some turbo sessions together that simulate a cyclo-cross race. Two or three sessions that were all about ‘cross racing, Ben Tulett specials we called them. Ben Swift helped by giving me some sessions he does. They are basically about building capacity and explosive power. These are the two we found were most effective.”

Session 1

Warm up for 20 minutes building to 60% of FTP.

5 minutes at 110% of FTP, which is pretty much as hard as you can go for 5 minutes.

3 minutes below 55% of FTP.

10 times 20 seconds at maximum effort, with 40 seconds rest after each one.

5 minutes at 110% FTP.

15 minutes of cool down at 55% of FTP.

Session 2

Warm up for 20 minutes to 60% of FTP

Full standing start sprint for 30 seconds, then straight into the following:-

1 minute at 121% FTP,

4 minutes and 30 seconds at 80% of FTP,

2 minutes at 100% FTP,

1 minutes at 121% FTP,

Then do 5 minutes at 56% FTP and repeat the above set from the first 1 minute at 121% FTP

Then cool down for 15 minutes.

“Ben did them to the letter when he could, and the two sessions worked. The one thing he wasn’t so good at was going easy when I gave him easy days to do. Ben did what a lot of bike racers do, he went just a bit too hard on easy days, and that’s no good. You need the easy days to be easy, not just for recovery but riding easy develops other physical capacities.

“Ben found out the hard way when he’d gone a bit too hard on an easy day and couldn’t do one of the hard sections. He understands and sees the value of riding easy now. You need those easy days to underpin the effects of the hard ones.”

Imjage of Ben Tulett

So there you have it, not so much how to coach a world champion but how any ambitious bike racer should plan their training. It’s simple; set your goal, analyse what it takes to achieve it, what are the specific demands of the challenge you chose then replicate those demands in targeted training sessions, and underpin them with some easy riding.

Add good nutrition so your body has the building blocks to make the most of the training, and rest so it has time to re-build. Put the whole thing together and, so long as the ambition was realistic given where you started from, your talent and aptitude and how much time you have, and if you are dedicated and don’t get distracted, then almost anyone can achieve their ambitions.   

Image of Ben Tulett
If you'd like to discuss any coaching needs with Dean Downing he can be contacted through his various social media accounts.
Twitter @dean0downing
Twitter @downingcycling
Instagram @deandowningcycling
Instagram @downingcycling