Wednesday, March 5, 2014

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?