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Pedal Hard Training Center in the basement of Mellow Johnny's bike shop helps cyclists hone road skills

Pam LeBlanc
pleblanc@statesman.com

Saguaro cacti whip past as I pedal furiously along an unspooling ribbon of pavement, but the hulking, flat-topped mesa on the horizon never seems to get any closer.

In fact, I haven't moved an inch since I climbed on my bike.

That's because it's attached to a trainer at the Pedal Hard Training Center in the basement of Mellow Johnny's bike shop in downtown Austin, where I'm putting myself through the paces of a virtual cycling session.

Today, I'm rolling through the Arizona desert. Next to me, a couple of guys are blazing toward Seattle. And the lucky women down at the end of the row are spinning up and down what look like the hills outside Santa Barbara, Calif.

Former pro cyclist Kevin Livingston, who rode in six Tours de France during his decade as a professional cyclist, is moving among us, checking our cadence and power output, and egging us on when we hit the big hills.

And there are big hills — four of them, in my case, each one a four-minute quad-blaster with a 2.5 percent grade. As the sweat beads up on my neck, Livingston tells me when to shift, how hard to push and when to hold back.

Livingston opened the Pedal Hard Training Center in October 2008. The facility works with all levels of cyclists, from beginners to pro triathletes. Customers affix their own bicycles to CompuTrainers that measure everything from heart rate and pedal cadence to power output, the best measure of a cyclist's effort.

"It's a glance under the hood of what someone's got," Livingston says. "Once we get an idea of what their maximum output is for 30 minutes, we can write a series of workouts for them to improve."

The sessions help teach cyclists how to apply power steadily, he says. They also can help with basics, like shifting.

"Gears can be a mystery to people — what gear should I be in when climbing? We're eliminating balance and traffic so you can focus on that. We're preparing them to get out on the road," Livingston says.

Athletes don't have to worry about weather when they train at the indoor center. Because they're on their own bicycles, they should already be comfortable with the equipment. They wear their regular cycling shoes and actually shift as if they were riding on the road.

Spinning, which is done on a stationary bicycle that doesn't have shiftable gears, provides good exercise but doesn't give statistical feedback.

The computers at Pedal Hard can even tell a cyclist how hard each leg is working and exactly where on the pedal a cyclist is pushing and pulling. That appeals to information geeks, who can work on a wide range of skills, from endurance to hill climbing to time-trialing, all within four orange-and-white painted walls.

"It's nice to have the numbers so you can accurately measure progress," says Cordy Lavery, 51, a nurse who recently celebrated her birthday with a trip to Pedal Hard. "You have all that data there, so you can see how hard you are working and how much harder you can go."

The video that scrolls in front of the cyclists helps the time pass quickly. Pedal Hard can cue up any of six different visuals, so cyclists don't get bored.

"What I like about this is the intensity, and you have someone next to you to push you a bit," says Geoff Magui, 51, a project manager, after finishing a session. "I'm a guy who needs focus, and if I ride too much on my own without a plan, I'm going to ride easy."

Some customers are training for specific events, like the Leadville 100, Ironman Florida or the Tour de France. Pedal Hard coaches can load GPS coordinates into the CompuTrainer so cyclists can virtually ride the course for which they are training.

Scott Starkey, 51, head of the local nonprofit WithCarson.org, says this type of training can't be done outdoors. "You build power more quickly in here," he says. "It teaches you to go hard when you're supposed to go hard and easy when you're supposed to go easy."

Some of the pros who train at the center go really hard, too.

They can push about 6 watts per kilogram of body weight — that's more than 400 watts for some.

Me? I averaged about 110 watts during my hourlong session, although I cranked it up to 140 watts during the hill climbs. I even hit 150 watts for a few brief moments.

My goal, Livingston advises, is to push that number up. He's certain I can do it.

It'll make me a better rider when I roll on real streets.

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994

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Pedal Hard

A one-hour session at the Pedal Hard Training Center at Mellow Johnny's Bike Shop, 400 Nueces St., costs $35. For more information, go to www.pedal hard.com or call 473-2233.