1980s training advice from Tony Ryan, Sean Kelly’s coach & mentor

Posted on: November 10th, 2018

Tony Ryan is credited with getting Sean Kelly – both above – onto a rock solid path very early in his career. It’s really interesting to look back on his notes – about training, racing and tactics – from the 1980s (Homepage Photo with many thanks to Joe Cashin)


Tony Ryan’s love of cycling started as a 16-year-old in 1956. Tony rode many Rásanna in the 60s and 70s with the Tipperary team. But his love of coaching started in the 1970s when a group of young cyclists in Carrick-on-Suir needed guidance.

The most notable of these was a young Sean Kelly. And while Tony Ryan coached and mentored many riders, he is best known for his association with Kelly. He was regarded as the complete mentor; coaching, tactics and the cycling lifestyle all under one roof, as it were.

And it is precisely because Ryan was so admired as a complete coach and mentor that an analysis of his recently surfaced training notes from the 1980s is such a worthwhile exercise. These are no ordinary notes; they’re Tony Ryan’s notes.

Special thanks go to Jamie Blanchfield for carrying out this analysis. And Paul Ryan and photographer Joe Cashin also gave really valuable assistance; as is their way.

Tony took Kelly under his wing until the age of 18 years. And Kelly would later always return from Europe to Ireland for the hard winter training under Tony’s guidance.

By this stage word had gotten out in Ireland that winter training weekends in Carrick were the place to be.

So Tony ran “formal” coaching weekends and along came the Lallys, McQuaids, McCormacks from Dublin among many others.

Tony would give talks in the local hotel afterwards to his captive audience. He ran many club coaching weekends while also working full time with the local council.

But he still managed to combine his love of coaching and a very successful cycling career in his own right.

Tony is, very sadly, no longer with us having passed away five years ago. Stickybottle is grateful to Tony’s family and Carrick Wheelers for allowing the distribution of Tony’s notes so many years after they were written,


By Jamie Blanchfield


This blog will aim to break down Tony’s coaching style, his approaches and knowledge and will compare them to modern day methods and approaches.

Tony’s “cycle racing coaching handbook” was kindly given to us by his son Paul. This document along with the accompanying handwritten notes form basis for our analysis.

To add some structure to this piece, we’ll break the approach up into four facets; technical, tactical, physical and psychological.

So, grab a coffee and dig in while we tease out just how far ahead of his time Tony Ryan was.



The technical ability is something that’s neglected in the modern-day approach to bike racing and coaching.

In my opinion this has resulted from fewer youth cyclists coming up through the club system as was the case in Tony’s day.

Riders are getting into bike racing later with an approach that is more focused on building “FTP” rather than learning how to ride a bunch efficiently. Yet the savings in power and energy that come with being able to ride in a bunch properly and comfortably are massive. And they go a long way to winning you that race.

Contained in Tony’s notes, a detailed illustration and accompanying line on how to ride through 90-degree bends, how to ride pacelines and how to ride in echelons. 

The graphic showing us how to ride in crosswinds (figure 1) explains what to do when wind blows from the right and the left; with detailed instruction on how to move through and off in such a formation.

You can be sure this was practiced on many mornings on the roads of Waterford and Tipperary and later influenced – even decided – the outcome of many races.

Something that caught my eye was the detailed sub-section on the “finishing-sprint”. Tony states: “No two sprints are ever the same”.

And how right he is. So often as modern-day coaches we encourage consistency and repeatability; use a flat road, sprint at max for x seconds etc.

But Tony suggests you need to learn all the different types of sprints you’re going to encounter in a race; uphill, flat, short-steep and train for these.

He states you should always be sprinting against someone. And he says you need to pick a marker and never let up before it.

By doing this, he says, riders learn the appropriate gearing, when to launch and “the feeling” of the sprint.


Figure 1. Riding Echelons



The subject of tactics in road racing is daunting to some. To an extent, it’s something that is learned through trial and error, coupled with competent technical ability on the bike.

Having read Tony’s notes, I believe his approach centred around ensuring you’re physically fit enough and technically proficient enough to be in the right position in the bunch.

That means being in a top 20 in a position, where you can observe everything, according to Tony.

By putting yourself in these positions multiple times, and receiving face-to-face input and reflection from a coach, tactical learning is sure to take place.

Essentially this approach to tactics goes back to doing the basics right. But the modern coaching approach often looks for reflection through the physical data alone.

One thing I aim to achieve with athletes I work with is getting them to provide an account of what happened in a race; the good and bad points and what we can work on.

Of course, the physical data is excellent to influence training prescription. But what is the point if we keep missing the break or messing up that small group sprint?



The Training Year

Each phase of training is broken down by Tony Ryan with specific goals to be achieved within each block. Something that caught my eye was Tony’s approach to winter training.

He states that too many miles in the cold winter months may not yield the results you expect when the season gets underway.

Off the bike training, he states, may be more beneficial in the long-term. Contrast this to now; a lot of athletes neglect the benefits of cross training both physical and psychological.

I think there is often too much focus on banging out interval after interval in November.

A typical December week for Tony would look like this:

Monday: Weights. Tuesday: 30-60 minutes cross training (running, squash, soccer). Wednesday: Weights. Thursday: light cross training. Friday: Lighter Weight Session. Saturday: 3 hours on the bike with cadence drills. Sunday: Cyclocross or same as Saturday. This can be seen in figure 2.

There is no doubt that an approach such as this creates a better “all-round” athlete. But as your level increases, I personally think specificity must also increase.

This cross-training approach should be adopted for months such as October and early November to keep things fresh and interesting.

We should point out that Tony suggests a more pared-back version for youth and junior riders. But the philosophy remains the same.

What I really enjoyed reading over this approach was the inclusion of specific strength and conditioning work.


Figure 2. The Approach to Winter Training


Strength and Conditioning

Tony gives a program of “serious weight training” for senior and developed – those older than 17 years – junior riders. This program operates on an alternating upper, lower body system with basic compound lifts moving to more isolated exercises.

He highlights the importance of technique and working with a qualified professional.

It’s interesting to observe how the attitude to strength training has changed in the endurance domain with a rep range of 10 suggested here. It was a commonly held belief that heavy strength training would add “bulk”.

We now know this is not the case and most of our desired endurance adaptations such as increased power at threshold and economy actually happen with lower reps and heavier weights.

While saying this, it is also important to note how progressive even incorporating gym work was at a time where the commonly held belief was that the cyclist should do only that; cycle.



One of my favourite things in the whole series of Tony’s documents was the “weekly training card”. This was essentially a template of a training diary, see figure 3.

In the modern era we are blessed with technology for monitoring everything from heart rate to power and blood markers. Tony suggests measuring your morning pulse; a technique still used today to measure training response.

He also states you need to measure pulse rate after training which is another metric we use known as heart rate recovery.

With the absence of power and heart rate monitoring devices on the bike, intensity measures include mileage, gearing, course completed, subjective notes etc.

While we now use metrics such as TSS, Critical Power, Lactate and so on to monitor training; a lot can be gained from stepping right back and saying how hard a ride was or how demanding a course was and going from there.

We should only ever use the metrics to back up and possibly red-flag a needed conversation with the athlete.


Figure 3. The Weekly Training Card



“Never, if at all possible, abandon a race. (However sometimes you must be sensible about this)”. We talk about mental toughness and resilience a lot in modern day sport.

Tony believed there was always merit in finishing a race. No matter how bad as race is going for you, there is always something to be learned and built on.

Now, we would refer to this as a facet of psychological skills training. In Tony’s notes this is referred to as “determination” and it is included as one of the factors for success in his race preparation diagram (figure 4).

Having a balance between racing, training, school, work, family is an important factor in the athlete’s development.

Different facets of preparation take priority at various points of the year. This balance, in Tony’s opinion, is key to ensuring the athlete does not reach a state of overtraining.

People, now, could heed this advice – essentially all stress is created equal. There is no point pushing the boundaries of your physical capacity in the evening when you have had a hugely stressful day and the goal is adaptation and making you a faster cyclist.

Goal setting is also briefly touched on as something which should be done to add structure to your year.

Tony suggests doing this in the off-season before putting your plan in place. This is something I’m big on in my personal coaching.

He outlines a process that involves reflection on last season; an objective look at your weaknesses and goals set accordingly.

With the introduction of power meters and monitoring software there is no excuse not to look back and reflect on your season from a physical standpoint. But it is also important to realise what worked for you; how a better balance can be achieved and so on.


Figure 4. Race Preparation



Tony’s five takeaways:

  1. Always keep a diary of your training and racing and the other matters affecting it.
  2. Always have a sensible approach to your cycling and training. Use common sense.
  3. Do not become a food fad or a complainer when conditions are bad.
  4. Develop a discipline in your training routine and in your life
  5. Never, if at all possible, abandon a race. (However sometimes you must be sensible about this)

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