There aren’t many people who can spend more time in work boots than cycling shoes and still harbor reasonable hopes of keeping up in a bike race with Tour de France veterans. But count American nordic combined skier Billy Demong as one of the few members of that group.
Over the past few years, Demong has been an avid bike racer during the off-season. This summer, though, he’s been more focused on remodeling his house than riding his bike, which will make things a more difficult this week as he competes with professionals like George Hincapie and Levi Leipheimer in the six-stage Tour of Utah.
“Most years, I actually ride quite a bit, and focus on some of the races. This year, I’ve…really just been relying on long-term fitness,” Demong said in an interview Tuesday. “The cool thing is that I’ve been able to ride at a fairly high level on certain days.”
Demong competed in two Oregon stage races earlier this summer—the Mount Hood Cycling Classic near Portland and the Cascade Cycling Classic in Bend—finishing mid-pack in both. He placed 100th of 120 in the Tour of Utah prologue on Tuesday, one second faster over the 4.5 kilometer course than his time from last year. That left him 47 seconds down on race leader Taylor Phinney heading into stage one on Wednesday—an 85-mile road race.
The light summer training and racing schedule is all part of Demong’s master plan for the next four years. After committing earlier this spring to training and racing through the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Demong said he first needed a little time to catch up on the non-athletic aspects of his life.
“It just seemed appropriate to take a break now and get some things done,” he said. “It’s been really healthy, mentally and physically.”
Demong got married in July, and he also began the process of demolishing and remodeling the interior of his house in Park City. He started roughly nine weeks ago, and the project will be done around the end of the month.
While Demong began the work happy to take a break from full-time training—which he’s done for the past eight years—he said on Tuesday that he’s early awaiting his return to life as an athlete. His training plan for the summer has been closer to that of a 40-year-old father than a 30-year-old Olympian in his prime preparing for World Championships. “When I train, it’s kind of a treat,” he said.
“I’ve basically just fit a few rides a week around all the work,” he said. “The workouts I do are all hard—I’m like, ‘what intervals can I do today…to get the most bang for my buck?’”
That approach, Demong said, has underscored the value of rest and recovery, with which he is already intimately familiar through the American nordic combined team’s tapering process—one that has led to multiple Olympic and World Championship medals.
“I think a lot of people get the attitude that, ‘as soon as I stop doing 20-hour weeks, I’ll be dead.’ [But] one of the things we’ve realized on our team is that the best races come after taking longer breaks,” Demong said, citing the 10-day to two-week taper that he executes before important nordic combined events. “To me, it’s been amazing how good I still feel when I go hard for some of these [bike] race efforts, despite not having the volume of training that I used to.”
Obviously, Demong acknowledged, the many years of heavy training already under his belt probably allowed him to get away with doing a little less work this summer. But despite the duration of most cycling races—some stages on the domestic circuit can be as long as five hours and 120 miles—Demong has learned that he still doesn’t have to put in huge hours.
In his first year as an elite rider, Demong said, he did some “really massive weeks of volume and intensity leading up to these stage races, mimicking what some of these other top amateurs were doing—assuming it was different than ski racing because of length.”
“By the end of the first season, I realized I was actually kind of hurting myself doing the volume before the races. Last year, I did more of a build, and then recover and taper…and had much better feelings,” he said. “Even though it’s four or five hours long, it comes down to the hardest five- or 10- or 20-minute effort, and that’s where the recovery comes into play.”
Ironically, Demong said that after the summer of light training, he’ll have to build his fitness into this winter rather than tapering back. After the conclusion of the Tour of Utah this weekend, Demong will travel to Europe with his nordic combined teammates for a two-week camp in September, which he plans as the start to a solid chunk of training.
“With a good block…in September and October and November, I can show up for the first World Cups in shape,” Demong said, “and do what I need to do to get ready for World Championships again.”
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.