The downhill expert talks about how a world champion trains to improve before the season starts
By Fabien Barel | 06 April 2021 | 1 min
Fabien Barel, the 40-year-old French athlete, is a three-time downhill world champion (in 1998 as a Junior, in 2004 and 2005 as an Elite) and one of the best-known mountain bikers in the world. Fabien tells Dainese how he trains, the methods he uses to improve his performance and the techniques he uses to be best prepared for the competitive biking season.
"At the end of each season, a 4 to 6 week break is essential for a mental reset and to set new goals. The body and mind need that time to rebalance after a competitive season.
The start of prep
I start preparing again at the end of November, after a well-deserved rest. I usually start with cardiovascular exercise to get back into top shape before the holidays. This is because it’s hard to achieve high intensity over the holiday period. The festive atmosphere affects you, even if you’re a professional athlete. Good food and relaxation are always important for me, although this is true for everyone: of course I set limits for myself, but breaking the rules a few times helps you feel good. During the holiday season, no self-respecting French person (and I’m no exception) could say no to a glass of wine, foie gras or excellent ravioli. But it’s only a break, because in mid January we’re back to training at maximum levels.
Winter training is very different from what I do during the racing season. During the winter, I focus on very long sessions. It's the perfect time to build muscle and build endurance. In the cold months I like to ski – when there’s a lot of fresh snow and the conditions are right, it’s spectacular! Winter is also the right time to ride a motorcycle or enduro bike and go to the motocross track. Every now and then I enjoy riding without having to pedal. During the season, however, I try to keep in shape and practice my skills and reflexes.
Alone or teamwork?
It isn’t easy, but for people who practice a sport like ours, you have to train alone. To create a competitive atmosphere, we’ll often organize days with the team. We’ll choose a route, set the stopwatch and have a mock race. There are some athletes who can work alone, pushing themselves with discipline, while others work better as part of a team. My team and I meet every two weeks to keep up our approach to competitions. It’s important physically, technically and, above all, mentally. This way I know that we’ll start off with the right attitude when the time comes for the “real” competitions.
I think timing yourself when riding solo is useful. I do it so that I can compare my times and see any improvements. It’s also true that your opponents make progress during the winter, so the only way to check the real state of your form is to compare yourself to others. In short, racing against someone is the only way to understand if you are training correctly.
You win with your mind
Physical strength alone is nothing. In sport, the mind is fundamental. Training at this time of year helps to build physical strength, sure, but this in turn leads to greater clarity when you ride downhill on a mountain bike. Concentration and mental strength help you to be more confident and more present in every millisecond of the descent. It’s a virtuous cycle – when you have your head on straight, it’s easier to make progress, and you develop the correct mental approach to the season. In my opinion, this is why winter prep is what really puts you in a position to perform to your full potential during the season and makes you win races”.