Setting goals, finding motivation and reaching your potential


   I’ve been doing this coaching thing for a while, I’ve learned that almost everybody wants to be a better rider next season but few work towards that goal over the winter.  There are a few reasons for this:

  1. No set goals to work for.
  2. A loss of motivation over the long winter
  3. No clear path on how to become that better rider.

   I’ve always had the opposite problem, the winter has always been a time to solve the problems I’ve had over the riding season. My program isn’t “do this workout for this amount of time”, it’s a leaning sequence. The motivation is the progress, as it always should be when learning something.  Coaching myself has always worked well, I’ve always leaned a little more each winter and at 53 years of age I’m not much slower than I was in my 30’s. Coaching others has often failed for the three reasons above, so let’s get into that.

No set goals to work for:  Most people go into the off-season wanting to ride better next year – that’s not a set goal.  Over the winter that desire gets beaten out of you and you settle for being the same rider you were last year, just a year older. The solution is to set real goals, create your own training calendar and set up a step by step training process that gets you there.

A loss of motivation over the long winter:  I’ve seen other training programs that are just time on the trainer – I couldn’t do that either!  Riding on the road in the summer is fun, the scenery changes, you’re in control of your bike, there are challenges in front of you. Riding on a trainer is boring. Many attempts have been made to make it less boring, there are smart trainers that show you virtual roads you’re riding and change the resistance…  Has anyone ever mistaken this for actually riding their bike???

I approach any skill as either time to learn or time to perform.  In learning to play piano, there is learning time (scales, chord progressions and endless repetition) and then there’s playing time – that’s the fun part.  I don’t mind the learning part because I can always see progress.  A winter training program has to offer the same thing.

Your fitness level can’t be your motivation. First, there’s no clear indication of fitness. You could go by heart rate, power output, body weight or just how you feel, but there’s no way of knowing from day to day if it’s going up or down. People put down grass seed because they want a nice lawn next year, nobody gets excited by watching it grow…

No clear path to become that better rider: This is where I come in.  Almost everybody learns how to balance a bike and borrow a skill set from walking, and they think they know how to pedal.  If you already know how to pedal, a winter training program is just a lot of pedaling.  What if you don’t know how to pedal?  It sounds crazy, but how is it that so many people can pedal a bike without having to learn a skill set? Perhaps you’re not doing it as well as you think…

My basic program is set up as a basic block diagram of the skills and strengths that go into making a good rider. I recognize that no two people have the same training calendar, the idea is to fit that diagram into your winter, without skipping steps.  I’ve been doing the same program for the past 25 years, I still get excited as I see myself progressing towards good form.

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It all starts here.

Assume nothing, test everything.

The most common assumption is that pedaling a bicycle is natural, everybody can do it.  The end result of this assumption is that cycling performance is all about fitness and effort.  If you buy into that, there are plenty of on-line coaching programs that will give you a workout plan based on power numbers. If you don’t buy that (and you shouldn’t), we have some work to do.

Let’s start with a clean sheet of paper and figure out how you should pedal. Your body is made up of bones and joints and muscles which allow you to move any limb in most directions. What we need to do now is to figure out  which muscles move which pivots to turn the crank at any point within the pedal stroke.


This is the largest muscle group in the body, it extends the upper leg from the hip – this is the muscle group used for pushing down on the pedal.


This is the second largest muscle group in the body, it extends the lower leg from the knee. This is the muscle group used for pushing the pedal forward.

90% of what I teach is the effective use of these two muscles because they are by far the largest muscles used. I will identify other muscles that allow the body to produce force in the right direction at other parts of the pedal stroke, but the efficiency of the muscle decreases as the size decreases. I can produce 150 pounds of force with my glutes all day long (it’s called standing), if I lift 25 pounds with my hip flexor, I’m in pain in under 2 minutes…

Hip flexors

Hip flexors are the muscles that lift the leg from the hip. Unlike the glutes which fight gravity and support body weight all day, the hip flexors only lift your foot. Their range of motion is also somewhat limited in normal day to day life. In pedaling a bike, the hip flexor is asked to work at it’s end range of motion. Using muscles at or beyond end range of motion is where injury happens.


Hamstrings retract the lower leg from the knee. This is the longest muscle group in the body and used in walking and running a lot. The bicycle is a geared system which requires more torque (if the gear is greater than 1:1 it requires more force to move the pedal than it would to move the body). Long, thin muscles become a danger for cramping or injury.




Timing is everything…


The two images above show that glutes push down and quads push forward. We know this because the glutes extend the leg down from the hip and the quads extend the lower leg out from the knee.  That also means that the glutes can only push down and the quads can only push forward. It is as important to not use muscles where they’re not effective as it is to use them when they are.


That’s it folks!

Most of my coaching program is about teaching people how to use two large muscle groups only at very specific points in the pedal stroke. It seems so simple…


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In New England, this is how you know it’s time to start planning for next season.


Lots of people go into the fall thinking “I’m going to ride my bike all winter so I’ll be fit come next spring”, and so often that fails. I can think of two reasons this happens:

The first I’ll call the “Are where there yet?” syndrome.  When I was little my parents would load us kids in the car and drive somewhere.  The one question that got asked a lot was “Are we there yet?”  Sitting on a trainer all winter is a lot like that, without knowing where you are, without seeing the progress, it’s an endless journey.

The second is what I’ll call banging your head against the wall. You rode your bike all season, at some point you stopped getting faster or more fit. What would make you think that more of the same all winter is going to change that?


This is a generic version of what an off-season training plan looks like:


I say “generic” because the program has to be built around the individual, their goals, their strengths and their time table.  The basic structure doesn’t change, I’ve been on this type of program for over 20 years, I still start with pedal stroke and core work, then start base mileage, then get into strength training…   The size of the blocks and the timing change base on the individual – I’ve left timing off the diagram because it’s the hardest part. When are you starting? What is your first event? When do you need to be fit and fast? Are you going away for some time during the winter?

The first year on the program is a real learning experience. It starts with a whole new way of looking at the pedal stroke, then breaks it down to muscle groups and goes into motor skills to make it all work. It’s not as simple as riding a bicycle…  The second year follows the same program, but what took days or weeks to figure out and make work the first year now takes a fraction of that time.  Those who have worked with me over the years are now nodding in agreement as they read.  I have one simple caution to anybody who gets on my program – don’t skip steps.

————————————————————–the fine print—————————————————————-
   This is where I’m torn between making this page a free resource on training, or making this page about my own coaching. I’ll try to do both, but I’ve been coaching riders and teaching pedal stroke long enough to know that my coaching produces results, a training resource is nice to have, but by itself it doesn’t produce results.
   Coaching in person gives me the ability to watch the learning process and make corrections when needed. I can’t stress how important that is, practice doesn’t make perfect if you’re not practicing correctly. My version of coaching is about being there when I need to be. It’s just like any other learning process, the teacher teaches until the student gets to a certain point, then they assign homework. I work with my clients on the trainer, teaching pedal stroke. I work with my clients on the road, applying what they learned on the trainer to the real thing. I work with my clients in base mileage, teaching about feeding schedules on the bike so they can reach their endurance goals. I even work with my clients on winter clothing and what it takes to overcome an New England winter. That’s what it takes to produce good riders.
   I live in Arlington MA, I am cutting back on my hours (I work at Belmont Wheelworks) so I can work with more clients.  I will be putting up a schedule of my coaching time here, along with my contact information. I hope to produce good results for as many people as I can.


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The start of a journey…


It starts with a desire and a statement of intent – “I want to be a ________”.  It could be anything, a musician, a fire fighter, a cyclist…   It’s not a decision to be taken lightly because making it happen takes a lot of dedication and hard work. It also takes the knowledge of how to reach that goal, which is where I come in.

First we must define what it means to be a cyclist. Almost everybody can ride a bicycle, what sets apart the true cyclist is the level of skill they ride with and what they get from it in return.  A true cyclist looks forward to the next ride, the next early morning on the bike, the next challenging hill…  It’s a level that few people will reach or even understand, but any true cyclist will tell you it’s well worth the time and effort in getting there.

The distinction between true cyclist and bike rider is in having both the skill sets and the confidence that having those skills allows. Ask a bike rider if they want to go on a ride and the lack of confidence starts to show – how long? how fast? are there hills?  Ask the same question to a true cyclist and their desire to spend time on the bike shows. On the bike the distinctions are similar, the true cyclist looks forward to the next challenge, the next hill, the next town line sprint, while the bike rider asks “how much longer is this ride?”.

This is where most people will argue “I just ride for fun”. That’s fine, but I would argue that you couldn’t really know what it’s like to be a true cyclist because you’ve never been there. Most people just ride for fun, that’s fine for them. Life is about prioritizing what matters to you, cycling isn’t on the top of their list. What I do in coaching is for those who want to find out what it’s like to get there. Riding the bike for fun takes on a whole new meaning.

Anyone reading this probably has the mental image of a thin, ultra fit bike racer as my target audience. I do work with bike racers as that was my own background, but it’s not my only focus. Take a look at my testimonials below and you’ll notice they’re mostly about gaining skills and confidence, or eliminating the frustrations that go along with not knowing how to do something.

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Ed Sassler Coaching

A proven path to strength and efficiency for the most reward and enjoyment you’ll ever have on a bike.

Every skill that you have was learned. You were probably too young to remember learning how to walk, but it was certainly a learning process (which involved falling down a lot).  So how is it that people think pedaling a bike is natural?  It’s not, but pedaling is the rare case where a machine controls the movement of the body – you can’t make the pedals go in any path other than a circle. Because you can’t fail at it, people assume they know how to do it. This is where my coaching program is different, the first step is in evaluating how the human body can best turn the pedals, then creating a motor skill learning process to make that happen.




M&J tandem

   We first got to know Ed over a series of bike fittings, with him fitting one or both of us to a series of single and tandem bikes.  We noticed every time we had a fitting, he would teach us some small thing, a way to think about moving the body on the bike, that when we went home and tried on the road, would make a big difference. The first time we shot up a hill on our tandem during our regular Thursday night ride, passing a bunch of single bikes we usually couldn’t keep up with on a hill, I shouted “I LOVE that man!” and Jim knew exactly who I meant!  At some point I was able to commit to taking Ed’s 4-week pedal stroke class, which was almost a two-hour commute for me, and that experience has largely shaped my riding style. 
   What I love about Ed’s teaching technique is his ability to convey his ideas in a way that the body can intuitively understand; instead of being told “pedal in circles” or “just copy this movement,” where it’s hard for me, since I can’t see my own body, to tell whether I’m even remotely doing it correctly, following his instruction seems to “trick” the body into moving in the most efficient way to pedal.
    As part of a tandem team and as a single rider, I have progressed from trying desperately to hang on to the back of the slower group in our cycling club through riding at the front of the group and on to desperately trying to hang on to the back of the fast groups, and sometimes being the first bike in the sprint.  Time spent with Ed has been instrumental in this progression, and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to work with him.
Maggie Cole

   I’ve known Ed Sassler for eight years. I met him because I wanted to switch to cycling as my main sport and I joined the Harvard Cycling team to learn more: learn more about where to ride, how to ride in groups, how to go fast and far. I started out as fairly athletic from a long time spent playing sports but with no experience on bikes beyond commuting on them all my life.
   Over the course of riding with the team and learning from Ed, I transformed myself and what I’m capable of. When I began riding, a 70-mile ride was something that required planning and forethought: I shouldn’t ride for a couple of days beforehand. I need to bring lots of food. Plenty of time. After a few years, that same ride is something I can casually decide to do in the morning when a few of us meet to decide where to ride that day.
   I transformed myself in this way not just by spending time on the bike, but by spending time on the bike with a goal in mind, and the tools to achieve it. Ed Sassler was instrumental in giving me these tools. He taught me about how to pedal efficiently, how to recruit different muscles for different exertions, how to ride in a paceline to conserve energy, and how to train with different goals at different times of the year. On the training rides he participates in, he’s constantly coaching, reinforcing lessons that we first covered on a stationary trainer, and pushing me to the next level of skill.
   As you can see from his website, Ed is very thoughtful about the learning process itself. It’s very hard to acquire a complex skill all at once. Instead, one can make the most progress in the least amount of time by breaking down a complex skill into its components, targeting them in isolation, and then putting them together again. As a teacher myself, it’s something I really appreciate about Ed’s approach.
Bernhard Nickel

   I started working with Ed after almost giving up on myself as a cyclist. I had been racing Sprint and Olympic triathlons for three seasons, and every effort I was making to get faster just resulted in frustration. My triathlon coach introduced me to Ed at an interval workout he led with the Harvard cycling group and some other triathletes. I told him about my frustrations and he right away took me under his wing and showed me where I was going wrong. Between intervals he literally held me up in my bike and showed me where to push on the pedals to activate my glutes and not just use my quads. I didn’t know at the time but this “use your glutes” would become a staple in my training. Through indoor pedal stroke lessons he showed me when and where to push and what muscles I should be using. He then came on rides with me to ” make what we did on the trainer work on the road.” The last race I did before I met Ed I went home and cried because of frustration, the next year at that same race I took 9 minutes off my time and won my age group. That season I had 4 out of 5 top 3 overall finishes, an accomplishment that was far beyond what I thought I was capable of.
Meghan Bailey


   Before I met Ed, I was a pretty average rider who dreaded hills.  I had been advised that if I kept climbing hills I would become stronger and would not suffer so much.  I kept climbing but didn’t stop suffering hills.  During my first fitting with Ed, he showed me how a bike is meant to be pedaled.  I learned how NOT to waste my energy when I climbed, I learned to enjoy climbing.  I felt like I became an awesome climber.  To prove it, I set a goal to climb Mt Washington on my bike.  For several months Ed helped me to train indoors and out.  With his help I climbed Mt Washington twice last summer. 
Cat Sullivan

Individual needs 

The testimonials above are from very different people with very different expectations of cycling. What they have in common is the initial frustration of trying to adapt a skill set that doesn’t work well.  There is an order to my coaching method, first the big problems need to be solved (learning how to pedal efficiently), then goals must be set and a plan for reaching those goals must be planned out.

   A few words about training plans:  There’s a lot written about different training plans, plenty of testimonials about how a certain type of plan got someone their results, and there’s a disturbing tendency for people to think that training like pro riders will make them pro riders.  It’s important to understand that any training method will have super responders, responders, poor responders and non-responders. That is to say that how your body responds to a certain type of training is not the same as the next person.  Pro cyclists are probably super responders for the type of training they use. If you are a poor or non-responder for that type of training, no amount of training like that pro is going to help.  Training is about the individual. To make the most of your training time you must first figure out what type of training you respond to.
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