“I just don’t get it,” I said.

“I can hold 400 watts for 20 minutes. But it’s still not good enough to get to Cat 1.”

We were sitting in a bar in downtown Boulder in 2015, several Belgian Tripels in, and the firm shove of alcohol was unchaining my ego, permitting me to say aloud that cyclists should never say- their dreams.

November in Boulder is filled with bloated, skinny-fat hipsters with funny tan lines nursing drinks adopting the heavy affect of a soldier returning from the front. They tend to linger at the peripheries, staring into the distance, thinking about their regrets, questioning their existence, hoping a beautiful stranger might interrupt their dark yet irresistible brooding and take them home after exchanging a few sultry lines so they can forget how short they’d fallen in relation to their racing ambitions.

“I’ll coach you,” Nate said. 

I flushed with embarrassment, and the tsunami of buzz broke on the thin, touseled, unlikely figure of Nate. 

Nate was the fastest person in this bar by far, and even in Boulder, it was unlikely anyone would walk through the door to challenge that, maybe ever.

Nate had ridden on the World Tour. Nate had held 7 watts per kilogram for 10 minutes. Nate had gotten injured and stared down the long corridor of life on the world tour circuit and, suddenly, just came home and pivoted into coaching. 

But you would never have known that looking at him. He looked like a traveling librarian who spent his free time growing cilantro. But Nate, even then, was already a legend on these streets, a name people whispered.  

“Really?” I said. “Me?”  

“Yeah, sure!” Nate said awkwardly. “I’m sure I can help you!” 

And just like that, my life changed.

I had hit my ceiling. Two years before, in 2013, I inhabited unreality, living out some Disney existence where I made every mistake possible. Yet, the universe seemed to intervene on my behalf on and off the bike and lift me into the realm of the poetic.

I’d ride three times a week fueled on six-packs, returning from some stranger’s bedroom and reflexively blast up Flagstaff, the premier climb in Boulder, full gas, somehow maintaining 400 watts, effortlessly tearing clear of reality.

The other days? I’d head out with a simple goal: climb 10,000 ft as quickly as possible.

On that training plan alone, I’d torn through the categories, racing like a mouth breather, putting in absurd moves in races that left my friends shaking their heads.

In my first P12 race at the Dead Dog Classic in Wyoming, displeased with my position, I drifted to the back of the pack in the first 5km, rode into the rumble strip, and attacked fifty people deep up the side leading into a two thirty minute climbs.

I held 430 watts for five minutes at 9,000 ft and attacked the reigning Colorado Hill Climb state champion, a man that looked like horse lungs had been attached to sticks, and I did it with one Cliff bar in my pocket. I finished fifth.

But then I fell in love.

2014 was a humiliation. The formula unraveled, on and off the bike. She was worth it, which meant that my schtick of living with three roommates sleeping on an old mattress with stolen crates plastered with Hemingway quotes quickly got old. I had to get my shit together.

My pedaling fell apart. When I showed up to races, I resembled a boomer entering the weight room after twenty years outside the gym, beer belly straining even the generous strings of Champion gym shorts, trying to squat 400 pounds without a warm-up. I got clowned by clowns. I got dropped by idiots with a tenth of my talent but twice my discipline.

And my lashing, reflexive training measures abandoned me. Flagstaff got steeper. Ten thousand feet became impossible. The beers went flat.

But then Nate came into my life.

Nate didn’t talk much, but his workouts did. He’d give you shit like this:

this...
...and this
...and this.

Often, you’d see what he prescribed and sneer. “What a joke,” you’d think. “He’s babying me.”

But then you’d do it, and you felt like you were being guided through some ancient Albanian torture ritual.

Warm-up? No problem.

Ten minutes high cadence to get loose? Annoying but easy.

4x10min that are 40 sec @ 420-480, 20 sec easy, 9min steady @ 320-340? Fuck me.

1x4min vo2 @ 400-440? Seriously?

You felt like you were in a boxing match, your opponent slowly softening you up, landing little jabs here and there. Nothing you couldn’t handle, but the blows kept falling.

And suddenly, when the main set arrived, you were on the ropes, taking haymakers to the face, desperately trying to turn the pedals hard enough to meet the prescriptions but feeling like your very sinews were separating under a carefully planned barrage of pain.

I’d finish traipsed over my handlebars on some undulating road somewhere, Flagstaff shimmering in the distance, the old, simple marker too blunt and insufficient for the rider he was molding.

I didn’t put it together in 2015 – I was too far off. But when 2016 came, the vicious, shattering, subtle sequence of workouts gradually transformed me from a grunty, half-hungover diesel into someone who could generate lactate, accelerate, and even ride easy.

He directed me subtly and indirectly, never seeming impressed, looking down on any effort that might instill a false sense of confidence, cryptically dismembering my ego if I ever fell into my own patterns with silence.

I didn’t notice it then, but Nate didn’t expose me to training; he exposed me to an ethos. Verbalizing numbers was uncouth. Straining for fitness confirmation was vulgar. No matter how well you rode, it was just a day – you never arrived anywhere. There was always more to do but less to say, and your job was to give it what you had, knowing whatever numbers you put up would be a joke to him that he would never laugh at but always resist.

And then there was the weight. He never said much about it except randomly inserting the most passing, oblique comments about VAM that would subtly dig at my inclination to take down entire buffets.

“Good power,” He’d say. “Lose a few pounds, and you’ll be climbing decent.”

The day after Thanksgiving 2017, I stepped on a scale. It blinked, and I saw 187 lbs. I still wasn’t CAT 1. By this time, I realized that it would never happen for me no matter how hard I tried or how many 40/20s I knocked out after consecutive 350-watt sweet spot blocks. Not at 187. 

So, I invented a simple process:

  1. Weight myself first thing in the morning every morning.
  2. Try to make the number go down.

Three months later, I was 168 lbs. Without trying, I smashed my Flagstaff PR. I’d average 1300 VAM on a 6% grade on tempo workouts. And, most importantly of all, my post activity comments on TrainingPeaks suddenly came to life with Nate’s praise.

“1000 VAM at 300 watts on a 6% grade. You’re climbing better already.”

“1400 VAM after 3,000 kjs’ for 12 minutes. You’re going well.”

Without a word or a suggestion, he nursed the crazy in me and bade me suffocate the relentless fat kid inside who wanted to pedal harder than the laws of thermodynamics and defy gravity.

That year, in 2018, at the Green Mountain Stage Race, I finished 5th on the Queen Stage in the Cat 2s, on App Gap, sealing enough points to upgrade to Cat 1 after five long years in roadie limbo.

Without a word or suggestion, remember. He never explicitly called me out, and yet, when I started doing things that REALLY moved the needle, he would always glowingly affirm it, which always made me wonder why he didn’t bring it up earlier if it mattered so much.

Only with time did I realize that too, was wisdom. Here’s a little secret to athletes out there – your coach probably can’t be brutally honest with you, because honesty is brutal. They can’t tell you, ‘Hey, you’re thicccc, it’s going to be REALLY hard to perform well at your weight,’ or ‘Your drinking is killing your performance,’ or ‘You suck because you miss three workouts a week’ or ‘Your lifestyle choices are destroying your recovery.’

There are many levers to pull to produce performance. The coach’s primary level is workouts. Yet, there’s so much outside the workouts that determines performance, most of which the coach can’t see, either because they’re not with you 24/7 or the athlete won’t bring it up. They’re call rate limiting factors, and not only are many of them hidden from a coach, but even if they weren’t, they’re too touchy to the athlete to directly address unless the athlete is willing to get deeply uncomfortable.

Nate taught me that in the end, it was on me. I could argue for my vices all I wanted and explain away any missed workout or performance, but if I really wanted to improve, I had to take responsibility for my own performance in all the aspects he couldn’t see

 

In 2019, I joined a Continental Elite team, Team Rio Grande, and, at 32, competed in my first NRC race. I finished 35th overall.

“Notoriously one of the hardest crits in the US. So really a huge step to make it through this one – really a huge week overall, Matti. Looking forward to hearing your story of it.

 

I did way, way, way better than I was supposed to after a battering offseason of heinous, bullshit rides.

Aerobic Limit Ride – Ride at the top of Z2, low Z3 for four hours. Race fueling. Let’s check on decoupling.

I’d head out into the frigid February morning, partially diabetic from breakfast, and then hold 290 watts for almost 5 hours at 145 bpm at 165 lbs with a heart rate drift of 3%, my back, lungs, and liver screaming at me with every pedal stroke. At 6,000 ft.

But I was immense. I was one of Nate’s disciples, a non-Strava posting, blue-collar, self-effacing, no-talent monster maximizing every ounce of the meager mitochondrion my mother gifted me.

But then, he got a position on EF Education Easy Post as their performance director and moved to Spain with his wife.

In darker moments, often when I ride, I think about all the people I’ve known and what we’ve shared and realize, with a shudder, how far away we are now, how far we’ve drifted.

I’ve sat in my share of maudlin, 60-something boomer bathrooms plastered with anodyne basic bitch framed quotes, but I once looked up from a prolonged stint on the throne and said, “Some people come into your life for a reason, some for a season, and some for a lifetime.”

Part of the hell of getting old is that you start to experience the clichés you always bridled against.

“I’ll never move to the suburbs,” I said, drinking a PBR at the Downer in 2012. Six years later, I was signing a mortgage for a house in Longmont in a new development.

“I’ll never get married,” I said in Norway to Lulie in 2011. Five years later, I was in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in early June, crying like a bitch as a girl walked down the aisle, grabbed my hand, and began our vows.

When Nate moved to Spain, I knew everything was about to change, that the man who interrupted my drunken sputterings five years prior wasn’t going to go to Spain and stay the same – he was going to rise, probably above me.

But he didn’t flick me, not yet. Somehow, even though he managed a stable of thirty-plus world tour riders, he kept coaching me. It must have been hard for him to adjust to a new culture, keeping his new wife happy so far from her friends, and especially painful to see the piteous outputs of my pedal strokes against the backdrop of a mountain of Word Tour athletes.

But he kept coaching me.

At this point, I knew what to do. Kill your ego, be patient, build the base, get good at changing pace, and don’t eat too much.

When the pandemic hit, I coped by training more than ever. His unsteady Zoom screen would tremble into view every month; he’d carefully dance around my exercise addiction, dysmorphia, and various dysfunctions and then set me off again renewed, armed with truth and direction I’d try to follow but largely ignore.

“You’re improving like a junior,” he said. And I was, for a while, anyway. But then his life changed, and his tone dropped, and on a Zoom call in 2021, he tried to break up with me.

“Would you be open to coaching me without comments, just adding workouts and a monthly Zoom call?’ I said. It was January 2022.

I was desperate. He caught me off guard. I wasn’t expecting him to break up with me, and more than anything, I didn’t want to lose access to his peerless mind, this man I knew with one foot firmly stuck in the world of the World Tour, yet the familiarity of a hometown barista.

“Sure!” Nate lied. “I’ll do that!”

I could tell he didn’t want to do it, but Nate, despite his expertise, never was good at saying no. I felt guilty for dragging him further along my journey, making him nurse along a mediocre talent to a lifetime of entirely mediocre results while his normal day-to-day involved juggling the logistical insanity of EF’s pre-tour training camps.

But he agreed to my desperation, to our mutual regret.

Without Nate’s comments, I slid. Look, I have my own coaching business at this point, and even though I lack Nate’s glittering palmares, my years at TrainingPeaks, obsession, and exposure to the ideas of the best minds in the business, I knew full well exactly what I needed to do to be at my best. 

Yet, I say on Gravel God Cycling that you don’t need a coach because of their knowledge. It’s all out there. If you can read and are averagely motivated, you can learn much more than is necessary to be fast. 

But, that’s not enough. That’s not why you should hire a coach. You should hire a coach for two reasons:

  1. No matter how much you know, you’re your own worst blindspot.
  2. You need someone besides you to care.

I didn’t need Nate’s expertise anymore – I had seven years of Nate’s workouts and comments preserved in my TrainingPeaks athlete account. He hadn’t really innovated or served me anything fresh in years. If I closed my eyes and pretended I was him, I could easily build up my next four weeks of training as if I were him. 

But the comments were gone. I’m not going to pretend that when he commented, he was spitting scripture, that anything he said now was novel or revelatory, but the content of the sentences almost didn’t matter. The sentences, no matter how predictable, implied he gave a shit.

You can’t type without thought. You can’t express yourself as a coach without effort, without searching for context or insight or adding a question mark at the end of a sentence seeking clarity.

But the deal was, no comments. Comments are time-consuming. If you’re an athlete reading this, realize that comments are what you’re paying for. Comments take organization, thought, and time; when you get them from someone with a firm grasp on the fundamentals, a feeling for the unspoken, and a compelling philosophy, you’re getting your money’s worth.

But I wasn’t getting them by choice. Because I didn’t want to let go. Because I didn’t let Nate go. Because I didn’t want to move on.

It’s funny, but if you upload and comment to TrainingPeaks enough, the glorified training log calendar ceases to be an account of your training history and more of an account of your life.

As I write this, it’s 2023. Files started to populate into my account in the fall of 2011.  Since 2011, I’ve won a reality TV show, moved from Winter Park to Boulder, dated a lot, started bike racing, met my future wife, worked at Boulder Nordic Ski Sport, worked at Fascat Cycling Coaching company, applied and got hired at TrainingPeaks, raced a lot, got married, got pregnant, had one kid, upgraded to Cat 1, moved to Longmont from Boulder, got pregnant again, got promoted to different positions in TrainingPeaks, had another kid, started racing on the NRC, went through the pandemic, started racing gravel, founded GravelGodCycling LLC, got promoted at TrainingPeaks again, and now find myself at 36 with a 6-year-old, a four-year-old, a wife, a house, a dog, two jobs, in the thick of it all.

And it’s all there in TrainingPeaks. And through it all, since 2015, has been Nate.

Off the top of my head, I couldn’t tell you what was going on in the fall of 2014. But I could find out. How?

I’d load TrainingPeaks, click the calendar, jump to 2014, and see a calendar appear with colored workout cards. Since it’s 2014, you’d see lots of red workouts, meaning I didn’t do them. You’d also see yellow ones, rides that were supposed to be four hours but were six, spaced four days apart from a comment that said, “Seeing this girl.”

You’d see the inconsistency and tumult and upheaval of a life. You’d see the workouts that never happened because of a funeral and the brief flickers of light where I’d pop a good result amidst a desert of inconsistency that would convince me to stay with this stupid, cutthroat sport despite everything.

And then, in 2015, you’d see two in the workout card instead of one comment because Nate started coaching me. Week after week, you’d see the faintest but most significant of data points entered into TrainingPeaks, a colored workout card, one comment from me, sometimes several from him, all represented by a whispy, hardly legible pop-up icon hovering at the bottom of the workout.

And those symbols continued unbroken from 2015 to 2021 until they stopped.

In some ways, he knows me better than my wife. He knows the amount of oxygen I can suck in, my tendencies, my neurosis, my dreams, and maybe, my truth. I can’t tell Nate who I am; he can see it in black and white on my TrainingPeaks calendar.

I have this book on my bookshelf called “How to Stay Married.” I know.

Well, a banger quote worth remembering is, “All marriages end. They either end in divorce or death.”

I would have stayed with Nate until the end, and I feel sorry for the poor bastard that I’m like that.

Look, I’m ordinary, and once you realize that I grew up Evangelical Lutheran from a middle-class family in Wisconsin and waded through endless overcast frigid winters with the high probability that I’d end up as an HVAC specialist married to the first woman I slept with with a mild alcohol problem that cut loose shooting whitetail deer, maybe you can understand why I’d cling to anything, vocationally or avocationally, above my station.  Being coached by Nate Wilson was like being early on Bitcoin. He changed my life.

And yet, to his credit, he finally said goodbye, as he should, because it was time.

And no matter how hard I wanted to remain attached to him, no matter how long I wanted to stay, however servile, in his orbit, at some point, life moves on.

And he’s moved on. And yes, that’s hard to fucking write. But, it’s time.

Tomorrow, I’ll click into the pedals. The workouts in TrainingPeaks will be my own. I will see Flagstaff erupting from the mist in the distance, and I will ride toward it, then veer away.

Because it’s November. Because this morning, I got up before the kids got up and lifted. And now, I’m headed out, with just enough time before the sun goes down. After a brief warm-up, I’ll settle into Z2 for a while, steady, high cadence, before arcing toward the perfect hill to grind my legs to slow revolutions, 50-60 rpm at 330 watts, not less, not more, for 5 minutes at a time, six sets, right after a lively tempo opener, just like Nate taught me.

Nearly eight years later, I’m no closer to challenging his position as the most badass in the bar. But I hope if he could see me, he would smile, however reluctantly, his most devoted disciple chasing his potential into the twilight.

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