Thursday, March 20, 2014

Nokere Koerse

After taking a few days of rest following the 3 Days of West Flanders so that my legs could really soak up the racing, it was back to work. With some big racing on the horizon and limited opportunities for training, my coach and I agreed that it was best to use my next race, Nokere Koerse, as a training race to help build form. So in the week preceding the race, I slowly built up the miles. I racked up 600km in the 6 days before Nokere, but really wasn’t feeling fatigued at all.

Upon arrival at our hotel in Belgium, the first thing I noticed was the size and decoration of the dining room. Such a room must have a piano, and a quick look to my left confirmed it. You must understand that my piano radar is always running. It was a nice old baby-grand piano, and I casually walked over and found that the lid was not locked.

Before I decide to break the rules (“Please do not touch the piano” signs merely enhance the adrenaline rush), I always ask permission. Pleased to hear that I was welcome to play anytime, my excitement was dampened when I discovered that the pedal wasn’t functioning. Unable to find the cause of the malfunction because of all the decorative candles atop the lid, I had to settle for a lackluster sound. Even though I only played for a short while, you’d be surprised to know just what effect it can have on an already positive morale.

Breakfast before the race was the usual affair, except for one notable event: I had Speculoos (analagous to the American Cookie Butter) for the first time. I’d heard plenty of warnings from teammates about how dangerous this stuff is, and after having some, I must ask you all to never allow me to buy a jar. In the world of spreads, the hierarchy is as follows: peanut butter in third place, Nutella in second, and Speculoos running away with the gold medal. It’s basically spread-able toffee. Candy in paste form. Very dangerous stuff!

The race was only a few hundred meters shy of 200km(123mi). It would feature fewer climbs and cobbled sections than Driedaagse, but promised to be a tough race nonetheless. This so-called “semi-classic” race started off with 2 short climbs in the first 5km, a fast cobbles section in the middle, and concluding with 8 laps of a 15km circuit. The final 250m to the finish each lap was a cobbled climb that got steeper as you neared the line.

With only 1km neutral section and the climbs so soon after the start, I made doubly sure to be at the start line 20 minutes early. No warmup, but at least I was starting at the front!

The start was very frantic, and I just surfed the wheels waiting for the climbs. I didn’t want to kill myself following moves before it actually got hard, and this proved to be a smart choice. On reaching the bottom of the first climb, attacks started flying immediately. I wanted to wait until halfway up before following anything because we were going ridiculously hard. Patience paid off, because the guys that attacked from the bottom soon faded and I found myself tagging a strong move.

The agony filling my legs was incredible. We came over the top of the climb and traded a few pulls on the short flat section before the next kicker. When the group caught us on the next hill and more attacks started going, I finally hit the wall and had to drift back. The first 9 minutes of the race after a completely cold start were an average of 425watts (454 normalized). I set a 3-minute power record on the climb of 550w, the beginning of my 5:30 spent in the move, averaging 470w (490 normalized). For those who don’t understand the numbers, the translation: it was very very hard.

While I recovered, I drifted a bit too far back. I wish I had suffered a little bit more and fought to stay closer to the front, because by the time I was recovered again, I was stuck mid-pack and unable to help with following moves. I could see a couple of small groups had gotten away. Cheng was in one of them, which was good for us. Unfortunately, as the two groups merged into one very dangerous move, Cheng suffered some serious stomach cramps and came back to the field. Without anyone in a group of 17, we had screwed up. The good news was that other teams had missed it as well, and we “settled in” for a long day of chasing. By the time we reached the local laps the gap was holding steady in the 2-3minutes range. There were 17 strong riders up ahead, but the field had as many rotating hard on the front with plenty more available when they started to fade.

It was a windy day, but there were not many places on the lap where it was a direct crosswind. As the laps ticked by, I was learning the best places to move up easily and where I needed to be at the front. I was doing my best to keep an eye on Luka before the crosswind sections to help him move up and stay out of the wind. He was our best bet in the finish and he needed to be fresh. Up in front, Tom and Loh were wearing themselves out in the rotation to bring back the break. The gap steadily dropped. In the closing laps, a few riders started falling back to the field from the break as they cracked.

Back in the field, we started putting together our leadout plan. We would be a bit short-staffed, but we would do our best. Lawson and I needed to get Jonas and Luka in a good position before the road bottle-necked at 1.5km to go.

On the final lap, the pace continued to pick up as all the leadout trains started fighting for position. Lawson helped the 3 of us stay near the front, but was separated from us after a series of turns. As the crucial moment neared, I did my best to keep Jonas and Luka out of the wind and out of trouble as we came up over a hill. I finally cracked as we got over the top. They were in a good spot, but after the fast downhill and hectic roundabout, they were stuck too far back. With just that short rest I was ready to go again, but once again had drifted too far back and could not get back to them. The lesson that I learned for the second time yesterday was to fight just a tiny bit longer when there is a brief rest coming up. Had I managed to just stay a bit closer to them, I could have a made a difference in the outcome. Part of the problem is that I’m still adjusting to making the intense end-of-race efforts. I’m used to these efforts after 3.5 hours, but now they are an hour and 1000kJ later. It makes a big difference!

As it was, Luka and Jonas were pinned to the edge of the road on the downwind side of the field. They had plenty of draft but no ability to move up and could not contest the field sprint. It was certainly a disappointing day for us, but once again I will come out of it with better legs and some lessons learned. The race finished at just under 4.5 hours. I averaged 290w (330 normalized), for a bit over 4500kJ.

I now have a few days to recover before heading to Spain for my first WorldTour race, the Volta a Catalunya. It will be my first mass-start race with race radios, and the new experiences keep coming!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen

Among American bike racers, Europe is the yardstick by which you are measured. Cycling has been established here as a major sport for so long that it is widely accepted that Europe is the true test of a racer. "Well he's good in America, but I wonder how he'll handle racing in Europe." And if Europe is the yardstick, Belgium is the measurement mark at the top.

Never one to just dip a toe in the water, my first race on Belgian ground was the 3 Days of West Flanders.

The race began on Friday with a 7km prologue time trial. A very simple course: 200m off the ramp, a right turn into a solid headwind. Go out for ~3km, two quick rights, and ~3km back with a ripping tailwind. A pure power and aerodynamics course. The last time I raced a flat, fast prologue of this length in a 2.1-ranked race, I won. But the Tour of Elk Grove is not the same as a 2.1 in Belgium--the field was much deeper this time.

I would be the last to start on our team. Some guys don't like to spend the whole day waiting for an 8-minute effort, but I'd much rather get to the race 4 hours before my start than to feel rushed. I had plenty of time to get feedback from each of my teammates as they returned from their efforts. The winds had really picked up for the earlier guys, but died down a little by the time I started in the late afternoon.

I had done two practice laps of the course earlier--if there are only 3 turns in the race, I may as well know how to really rip through them! While I was warming up, I was running through the pacing in my mind. I visualize each turn, the gear shifts that I need to make while approaching each one and the points at which I brake, dive into the turn, and get on the gas at the exit. I also think about how much I should be hurting at various points in the race. I have always time-trialed by feel (without a power meter), so this is easy for me to do.

Everyone believed that I was capable of a top-10 result, so that was my minimum acceptable placing. I was racing to win.

Finishing a time trial in a headwind is simple: hold back a bit until you make the turn, then light the whole matchbook on the way to the finish. Finishing with a tailwind is tricky. There's not as much time to make up on the return leg, so you've got to burn most of the matches getting to the turnaround and hope you have enough left to get home. Having decided that I was racing to the turnaround almost as if it were the finish, I went for it.

The first 200m off the ramp were sheltered from the wind, so I picked up as much speed as possible before the first turn. I hit the turn full-gas, then sprinted out of it and immediately made myself as small as possible. My coach in the follow car said that I came out of the turn at 50kph and accelerated from there. In hindsight, doing the first kilometer over 50kph into a headwind may have been a bit much, but I was racing to the turnaround, remember?

I stayed as small as possible, fighting to maintain speed, knowing that I would get a short rest in the turns later on. I finally got there, and then the fun began. The first part of the return leg was twisty, so ripping through each turn in the 11-tooth distracted me from the quickly-growing agony in my legs. There was one crosswalk ramp that I knew to hold on extra tight for. I hit it at 60+kph and was in the air for a moment. A couple sweeping turns later and I popped onto the 1.5km finish drag. Dead straight and wide, all that was left to do was get every last bit of energy from my legs. I was starting to regret the pace of the first kilometer as I really ran out of steam, but I crossed  the line at 8:10, good enough for 10th place with an average speed of 51.4kph (31.7mph). I was satisfied, but I think if I had gone a couple of seconds slower in the first kilometer, I would have more than made them back in the last two.

Stage 1 was 183km (113mi), mostly flat but with a handful of cobblestone sections and one cobbled climb, the Kwaremont. We had a conservative gameplan, as we had only 6 guys in the race. The goal was for me to maintain my 10th in GC and for Luka to feature in the expected field sprint.

The first time I did a Pro/1 cyclocross race, I was shocked at how physical the battle for position was on the first lap, especially the holeshot. During stage 1, I frequently wondered whether I was actually in a cyclocross race. With all of the traffic furniture creating frequent bottlenecks in the road, the cyclocross holeshot fight was happening every time. A bottleneck or turn would appear up the road and everyone would just start sprinting. The guys that won the battle got to shoot through at full speed, while everyone else's penalty for losing was panic-braking, then sprinting back up to speed. Some guys would seek alternate routes around or over the obstacle.

The race became a blur of sprinting towards some unknown bottleneck that all the locals knew about but I was unaware of, slamming on the brakes, and sprinting back up to speed. The road surface and conditions changed frequently, and you have to be prepared at any moment to jump over a crack, curb, ride in the grass, on the sidewalk, and so on. It was a high-speed obstacle course.

The race got more interesting when cobbles were approaching. Suddenly the fight for position became as fierce as a sprint finish. We would be on a wide road, banging bars, pushing and shoving as the speed constantly increased, then make a turn onto a one-lane cobblestone road. In what became my pattern for the weekend, I was always at the front just 500m too soon. All the guys who have raced these roads their whole lives know the exact moment to time their surge to the front, pushing me back to mid-pack just before the turn. Very frustrating.

It was my first time to race on proper cobbles. I can be light and smooth on the bike, so I found the fast sections to be fine, even as my hands and feet quickly went numb from the overwhelming vibrations. The closest way to simulate this in the US is riding a rumble-strip on the highway, but the even spacing of a rumble-strip might make the ride too pleasant.

I was even able to move up through the field on the fast cobbled sectors. On the slow stuff, though, it was very difficult to get into a rhythm as I was bounced all over the place.

The fight for position before the Kwaremont was hilarious, a vicious battle for position before a turn onto a road that as barely the width of a small European car. Then the guys at the front slowed to a crawl as they could relax. With the road completely clogged, they were in control. So we pedaled easily to the bottom of the climb, then they took off. The road pitched up and turned to cobbles, and things went sour when the guys in front of me crossed wheels and fell over. I had to unclip, then could not get moving again. At one point I had both feet on the ground. By the time I got over the top, I was in a chase group a long way back. After 15k of chasing, the race was back together.

In a very nervous field sprint, I finished around 50th. I maintained my GC place, but there was a time gap of 4 seconds. Luka is still finding his field sprint legs and faded in the finale after hitting the front too early, but we had another chance.

Sunday's stage was basically the same, and things played out the same. Chaotic racing over an obstacle course, lots of panic-braking and sprinting, and finding myself at the front just 500m too soon before the important moments. The positioning fight was the most illuminating part of the weekend. For the main cobbled climb of the day, I needed to be at the front 15km beforehand because the roads just weren't conducive to moving up in the pack; the road was completely clogged up and I was stuck mid-pack.

The race exploded over the final cobbled sector, and our group didn't rejoin the leaders until we entered the finishing circuits at 30k to go. The circuits were brutal, with many turns on narrow roads--we were single file almost the whole time.  I finally made it to the front at the start of the last lap, getting Luka into position for the sprint, but my legs were fading fast and I drifted back. When the field split in the last few K, my group finished 8 seconds behind the leaders.

In the end I dropped to 14th in GC, which is a good result for my first Belgian race, no doubt. But with better positioning, I would have finished 5th or 6th in GC simply by not losing time in the field sprints. Part of the problem was legs, as I have not done a race like this in a long time. I've been doing races with steady hard efforts, not repeated sprints, so it was a shock to the system.

Just to give you an idea, I had Teun, the team's data guru, analyse my power data from the last stage. The number of times I did a 5-second effort over 800 watts? 39. 39! 21 times it was 10 seconds over 700 watts.  Add to that the dozens of times I did a 500w effort for 20-30 seconds in the gutter, and you have a tiring day. All that in a 4.5hour race in which I averaged 283 watts (330w normalized). I spent 72 minutes (27% of the race) over 400 watts.

In summary: I can only imagine the chaos that would have transpired had it also been raining. Don't worry, though, I have another chance of experiencing a 'real' Belgian race on the 19th, with Nokere Koerse.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

La Drome Classic

The beauty of a pair of one-day races is that the second is a brand new race. The reset button has been pushed. Once again, we were given free rein to go on the attack. We would try to work harder at riding as a team when possible so that we could help each other in the event of trouble, or just to get into position for important points.

The race, La Drome Classic, was a bit shorter than the previous day at a mere 185km (114mi). The course had a lot of up and down, but no large climbs. We would do 3.5 laps of a big circuit with 2 categorized climbs—both less than a kilometer with large pitches at 17%+ gradients—before hitting 2 climbs of a couple kilometers on the way back to the finish. It was a windy day, and we knew that certain sections of the course would be exposed and could break the race apart.

The staging was more straightforward and the neutral section was long, so I was close to the front when racing began. The moment we passed KM0, it was as if somebody turned on the wind. I was in position to follow the first attack as the whole field strung out in the gutter. The winds kept it so that only the first 20 riders could be in the mix, and I was having a great time surfing wheels as one attack after another was launched.

It wasn’t long before we realized that the race was coming apart behind us, and the attacks became more urgent. Again, I really wanted to be in the break, but nothing was really getting clear. Finally a group had a 100m gap as we approached a small town, so I attacked to bridge to them knowing that the narrow and twisty roads through the town would help us establish a gap. It didn’t work, though, when we ran out of steam on the hill outside of town and a large group counter-attacked. Warren, after his strong ride on Saturday, was ready to go and pounced on the move. It was a big group of nearly 20 riders and I really wanted to be in it, but needed to recover for a moment and couldn’t follow.

The field didn’t want a group so large to get away, so the attacks continued with the break just 15 seconds up the road.

At this point, we were about 15km into the race. I was sprinting into a corner to follow a move and the perfect set of circumstances came together to spoil my day. I went from high cadence out of the saddle to suddenly stopping pedaling as I chucked the bike into hard right-hander. At the same moment, I hit a sizeable bump and the chain’s momentum combined with the angle of the bike and bump tossed my chain over the big ring when I resumed pedaling.

It only took a couple of pedal strokes to get the chain back on, but I quickly knew that a link had been twisted in the process. Every time I would try to go hard, the chain would skip every few pedal strokes. I thought that it would be okay and that I could still finish the race on it, so I kept going.

It wasn’t long after that we made a sharp turn and were slammed into the gutter by strong winds. Just that fast, the field exploded into the several echelons. I was in the same echelon as Thierry and Johannes, and we worked hard at the front to claw back to the lead group. The gap was just a couple of seconds when we made the turn onto the first climb and I realized how badly I’d messed up my chain.

Climbing a 17% grade is not a pretty sight--bodies flailing everywhere to keep the pedals turning over in a prolonged uphill sprint. I think my chain slipped two dozen times on the climb as I slipped further and further back in the field. I simply couldn’t get the power to the rear wheel and contemplated waiting at the top for the team car to get my spare bike. Unsure of the state of the field, though, I decided to hang on as long as I could until I was sure the car was there.

Things calmed down a bit on the backside, and a quick look back at the end of a long stretch of road revealed just how much damage the wind had done—no cars in sight. I would have to finesse my chain to last until I could get my spare bike.

My strategy was to hang at the back of the field (which was now only about 60 riders) to see if the cars returned. When we got closer to a climb or the crosswind section of the loop I would get back to the front so that I could 1) help keep Thierry and Johannes out of the wind and in good position and 2) sag climb to take it easier on my chain.

After a long wait, the cars finally showed up, but the race was too hot to risk a bike change. Groups were constantly attacking because the break was never much more than a minute ahead. Then there were the climbs and the crosswind section to deal with. Finally we calmed down a little bit and I decided to go for it. I tailgunned for 20 minutes gesturing to the commissaire to call our car up, but they never arrived. It seemed that it was only part of the caravan behind us. I would have to wait another lap.

At long last, after another trip up the climbs, the car arrived and I jumped on my spare bike. I had managed with a skipping chain for over 70km. A bit of motorpacing and I was back in the field. In the time I was tailgunning and changing bikes, Thierry had joined Warren in the group up the road, which was now a small peloton itself.

The next lap was very fast as a few teams desperately chased the lead group back, catching them just before another climb. Warren, unstoppable, joined the next move as well, which would go to the line.

Life was much better on my spare bike as I could now really sprint out of corners and up hills. My legs were already losing their snap, though. In contrast to the previous race, this one was less about constant power and more about the frequent surges and sprints.

There wasn’t much to be done, though. We weren’t going to attack or chase with Warren up the road, and the chasing teams had lost their steam. After exiting the circuit, they finally threw in the towel when we turned into a headwind. From that point on, it was a group ride to the finish over the final 2 climbs.

Warren, tired from a long day of attacking, managed a hard-fought 8th place.  There were a couple of smaller groups behind his, and the main field came in around 20th place, about 10 minutes later. Of the 150 or so starters, 85 finished the race and I’m pleased to say that I was one of them.

My weird mechanical put a damper on my race, but there was still a lot to be pleased with. I was doing well with positioning when I tried, and my legs never quit on me even though they were getting tired by the end. I’ll bounce back even stronger for this weekend’s 3 Days of West Flanders, which opens with a 7km prologue. I do love prologues.

La Classic Sud Ardeche

After a productive two weeks of training in Lucca, I returned to France again for the next batch of races: Sud Ardeche and La Drome Classic, two one-day races. Our team for the races included no definite leader, so it was really an opportunity for all of us to go on the attack. I was excited.

Sud Ardeche was first up, and promised to be a real kick in the pants. The 195km race (120mi) featured 8 categorized climbs, the longest of which was 13 minutes at race pace. Not mountains, but certainly tough climbs.

Before the race began, however, there was the Staging Game. This is the challenge of starting the neutral rollout at the front. It just makes sense to do so: it requires zero energy and is one less time that you have to use energy to get to the front. Another option is to “simply” get to the front during the neutral section if you want to start at the front, but sometimes the neutral section isn’t long enough or there are just too many guys trying to get there (which is the case when everybody knows that the race is going to be hard from the start).

I say all that to say this: I am terrible at the Staging Game. I’ve accepted that such is my lot in life. I had the same level of success in school. I would study hard for a quiz, then the teacher decided to make it open-notes. Sometimes I was just too swamped to study and I really needed to catch a break; this time the quiz would be closed-notes. The same goes for the Staging Game. No matter how hard I try, I cannot catch a break.

This is especially true for the staging areas that can only be accessed from the front—the guys that arrive late have “no option” but to back it in. I’ve been on the start line for 10 minutes because one of my greatest fears is missing the start, and these guys show up 30 seconds before the gun and suddenly I’m at the back. I have a special loathing reserved for those who, when the staging area is cordoned off with a rope, will pull up next to the guys at the front and then move the rope over their head.

In the context of my rant, I started Sud Ardeche towards the back, primarily because I wanted to be at the front so I could go on the attack. The neutral section was short, and the field strung out immediately as we wound our way up a low-grade, twisting climb. For a few minutes I was making my way up there, then immediately started following moves. One big acceleration came just before a small village bottleneck and suddenly we were a group of 20 with a nice gap. Unfortunately, I was the only Giant-Shimano rider there, so I had to be very quick to jump on any group that had riders from the big teams or was more than a few riders. Going on offense was an option, but a risky one because I could easily miss a counter-attack with such a big group. It was safest to just follow wheels until backup arrived. When the field regrouped, a break of 3 riders from smaller teams was about 30 seconds up the road.  Satisfied, the field just clogged the narrow road and let the break get clear. I had averaged 410 watts for the first 10 minutes, so I was glad to have a rest.

With that, a very bipolar day of racing lay ahead. We soft-pedaled for a long time and the break got up to 11 minutes as we twisted through the rolling terrain. Then FDJ took the front suddenly and stretched the field out over the next climb. The gap had fallen to 7 minutes, and they eased off the gas as we neared the flatter section of the course, sending the gap back up to double digits.

I had drifted back during the relaxed pace and was deciding whether I should take a nature break when we made a left turn across the river. All at once, we were out in the open, exposed to a hard crosswind. I don’t know whether FDJ anticipated this or simply seized the opportunity, but they put the pedal to the metal. We went single file in the gutter, then Thomas came up to me and we began the surge to get to the echelon at the front. Just as we got there, I saw around the bend that the whole FDJ team had a 15 second gap on the field. The pace didn’t relent for another 5 minutes, when we turned into a headwind and were at last able to close the gap.

Then we took it easy again. Like I said: bipolar.

With half the race completed, we got to the real climbs. We would repeat a 10-minute climb twice, then repeat the 13-minute climb twice before hitting one shorter climb in the last 15km. I did a poor job of fighting for position for the first climb because we knew the key was the later climbs. In hindsight, just starting that climb at the front would have made the positioning easier for the rest of the race.

We hit the climb and started sprinting—500 watts for nearly two minutes, then gradually eased off the pace until we reached the top. I averaged 430w for the first 5 minutes, and 390 for the whole 10 minutes. I started the descent in the middle of the field, but it was so narrow and bumpy that there was no moving up. By the bottom of the descent, the whole field knew to fight for position, so I didn’t make up much ground. Then we were on the climb again…with the same power numbers the second time up.

Again, not much time to prepare for the next climb, and my position was less than ideal. 13 minutes at 380w. I was still feeling pretty good, but that would change soon.

As expected, I had adapted well after my last races and my training. But those races had only been 140km or so. Things really change when you add another 1.5 hours to an already tough race.

The road was completely clogged with riders trying to get to the front because it was no secret that the last big climb was going to be berserk. As such, having been mid-pack for the last 3 climbs, that’s where I would start the last one, too. Only this time the pace was full-gas from the bottom and my legs finally quit on me a few minutes into the climb. I had just passed 4000kJ, 15 minutes shy of 5 hours of racing.

From there, all that was left to do was ride in our small grupetto to the finish, arriving about 10 minutes behind the leaders.

Warren had made the front group over the final climbs and came to the finish with a group of 35. It would be too much to expect our star climber to also be a field sprinter, and he finished an enviable 18th.

Numbers are in my blood, I love to dig into the data and see what there is to learn; it’s a blending of the engineer and bike racer in me. The analysis of the race is telling—it was hard. I spent 20% of the race (over an hour in total) above 400 watts. Another 25% was between 300-400 watts. I’m continually learning, and my legs are continually improving. My legs would have been competitive in Besseges, but the goalpost was moved this time around. The bar was raised, and now I have to reach that one. #KeepChallenging, right?