What I Learned in 2016

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After each race I write up a race report, and part of those reports is a collection of things I learned from that race. Here I’ve grouped the most important lessons I’ve learned this year:

Strategy:

Tactics:

Technique:

Mental Awareness:

Physical Preparation:

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2016 Racing Goals

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Last season I wrote a post about my goals for 2015. In that post I pointed out that setting goals like “win a race” can be dangerous, since they are externally-focused rather than internally-focused. Instead, I focused on setting internally-focused goals, even if they were “fuzzier”.

This year I will do the same. While I do have external goals for next year, I realize that judging the worth of my season based on these external goals is dangerous. After all, winning involves a lot of luck, and I want my goals to be attainable based on the work I put in, rather than on other people crashing or winning a sprint by a bike throw. So without further ado, here are my 2016 goals in chronological order:

  1. Commit to real base training, with 3-4 weeks prep, 2 months of long base miles, and 1 month base + intervals. Last year I tried to stick to a rigid plan with certain workouts on certain days, and this led to injuries because I didn’t want to skip sessions. This year I’m going to be more flexible in the hopes of actually doing more base miles (by avoiding injury). Right now I’m in the “prep” period, and hopefully will be out of it by Dec. 1.
  2. Have the fitness to race competitively in April and May. These past two seasons I’ve floundered in April and May, and came into form in June and July. But this year I will be graduating and probably moving in July, so who knows if I’ll even be around racing at that point. Thus I need to acquire fitness earlier, which means doing my base miles, and then starting harder riding a little earlier than usual.
  3. Raise my FTP. These past two seasons my FTP has been my weak point. I did well in races based solely on my sprint and tactics. That’s fine, but I’d like to be a more well-rounded cyclist. I’d like at least a 10% increase over last season’s high, though I feel like picking specific numbers is kind of silly. Instead I just want to put in good base miles, and then do longer intervals in March and maybe late February. As long as I’m truly working towards this result, I’ll be happy with myself no matter the numbers.
  4. Race more. I tend to race fairly infrequently, largely due to the belief that my body can’t handle multiple days of racing back-to-back. I’m not sure if that was true or not last season, but this season I want to address that concern by putting in the miles. At the end of last season I really focused on riding more, and I saw this pay dividends in my performance.

Guess it’s time to get to work!

The Realities of Having a Power Meter

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Once you start getting serious about training it’s hard to ignore the fact that everyone is talking about power meters. Most training books you buy will start with something like “here’s some heart rate training information, but you really should use a power meter!” They make it seem like having a power meter is some magical key to unlocking your faster self. I think it goes without saying that if you are shooting for a Pro contract then you should definitely buy a power meter (and carbon race wheels, and an aero bike, and…). But what about for those of us whose goal is simply Cat 3 at best, or winning in our age group? What do we actually get out of having a power meter?

After training by feel and heart rate for two years, I finally broke down and bought a power meter. I used it for one full racing season, and am just about to start training with it for next season. Here is what I have learned:

You’re still the same person

Do you love reading about training? Do you follow a structured training program? Do you like playing with numbers? If you answered yes to any of these, then you will benefit from a power meter. Conversely, if you’re the type that “just rides” and don’t follow any structured training, then a power meter is most likely a waste of money. After all, the advantage in having a power meter is not in seeing the power numbers, it’s in using the power numbers to adjust your training.

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Racing through the lens of power

When we train for races, we tend to focus on the most difficult parts of the course. If there’s a big hill we do hill work. If the race is known to always end in a bunch sprint then we work on our sprinting. But it’s easy to forget that those big features only account for an extremely small part of the race. Having a power meter really drive this point home.  Leading up to my last race of the season I was thinking about how to prepare for it. The course is mostly flat, so I knew that a sprint finish was the most likely. The logical thing to do might have been to devote lots of time to sprint training. And yet by looking at my power numbers from similar races, I saw that almost the entire race would be spent in zone 2. This was a long race (for me) at 64 miles. I realized that if I couldn’t comfortably ride on zone 2 for that kind of distance, then having the biggest sprint in the world wouldn’t help. So instead I started adding on 25-30 zone 2 miles before my weekly group rides. Looking at these power files later I saw that this mirrored much more closely what I could expect the race to be like. In the end this training paid off greatly, as I easily won the bunch sprint to second overall. I was one of the few people who had trained to the demands of the course, rather than just the demands of the last 200 meters.

Interval training

This one is simple: interval training is simply better with a power meter. You can see how your sessions compare and whether you’re making progress. You can see when you’re actually tired, and when you still have energy but your brain is just tricking you. You can accurately pace long intervals. If you regularly do interval training, then you will immediately see the benefit from having a power meter.

Know thyself

I love thinking about racing. I love planning. I love the fact that winning bike races isn’t just about who is the strongest. That’s why I absolutely love having a power meter. With one you can objectively look at your overall power profile and see where your strengths and weaknesses are. You can know for a fact that your sprint is weak, but that your 5 min w/kg are excellent, and use that accordingly in your next race to smash everyone. This self-awareness is invaluable for the “thinking racer.” Knowing what you can and can’t do well is paramount to success in racing. A power meter lays that out for you.

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Charting your progress

Lastly, the part I enjoy most about having a power meter is the ability to chart your progress. The critical power chart in Golden Cheetah (or the associated chart in Training Peaks) give you a long-term view of how you’re doing. When you decide to devote time and effort to some specific aspect of training (say, one minute intervals) you want to know that that training is actually making a difference. By accurately tracking your performance over time, you can see the results of your hard work. I find this to be extremely motivating. It’s much easier to get out and do a hard training ride when you’ve know that it will make you faster. It’s like dieting. If you don’t own a scale, then it might not be evident that cutting out sodas for a month did anything, and you may just quit. But if you weigh yourself daily you can see the progress, and it makes it that much easier to endure for another day.

How to Win Without Being Fast

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What is fast? We think we know it when we see it. It’s that guy or gal who can pull the group ride for an hour. It’s the person who wins every stop sign sprint. Or maybe it’s the person who flies up every hill, leaving us double-checking that our brakes aren’t rubbing. When we see that kind of person winning a race we think “of course they won, they’re fast!” But the big dirty secret of bike racing is that “fast” might not be what you think it is.

The Myth of “Fast”

In my experience, the people we label “fast” are the people who are good at precisely what we are bad at. I can’t motor on the flats, so when I see someone pulling the group at a high pace for miles on end I instantly label them as “fast.” For people who can’t sprint, they tend to look at sprinters and see “fast.” This is because their talent in that area is no much higher than ours that we don’t believe it’s possible to close that gap. But the key is that we don’t need to be fast in every aspect of cycling; no one is. Even celebrated all-around riders like Peter Sagan still routinely get beat in the sprints, dropped on the climbs, and out-motored on the flats. The key is to beat the competition with your brain, not your body.

Being “Fast Enough”

It’s my experience that many racers tend to focus too much on getting stronger. This may seem like a silly statement, because clearly it is beneficial to be a stronger bike rider. However, having an FTP that is 10 watts higher than the next guy or gal in the race probably isn’t going to allow you to solo away and win. To do that you’d maybe need an extra 40 or 50 watts to hold off the peloton, and those kind of advantages almost never exist thanks to the category system. Additionally, training enough to gain these kinds of advantages is hard work! And while I’m not averse to hard work, if there’s a simpler way which gives the same result, why not take it? Bike racing isn’t running, it’s not about who exercises best.

So instead of simply focusing on getting stronger, you should focus on getting “strong enough”, and then finding that winning edge by racing smarter than your opponents. How strong is strong enough? “Strong enough” is when you can hang with the peloton without worrying about getting dropped, it’s when you can stick with the surges, and when you consistently find yourself with the peloton at the end of the race.

 

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Planning to Win

So suppose you’re “fast enough” and are consistently finishing races with the peloton, what next? How do you go from mid-pack to podium? The key is preparation. Below are what I consider to be the four key topics (in no particular order):

  1. (You) Do you know your own strengths and weaknesses? How are you going to utilize/avoid them during the race?
  2. (Course) Do you know the demands of the course? Have you trained accordingly?
  3. (Others) Do you know your opponents? At the very least, do you know how well teams will be represented?
  4. (Plan) How are you planning to win? Sprint? Breakaway? Teamwork?

All four of these topics work together. You can’t fully understand one without knowing all the others. Let’s look at each one a little closer.

You

In my opinion, this is the most important. You absolutely must know yourself in order to win. Far and away the best way to do this is with a power meter. The key is to have as many reference points as possible. How does my max power compare to others in my category? 15 second? 2 minute? 20 minute? Simply by virtue of genetics, there will undoubtedly be some areas where you are naturally better than others, and some areas that are lagging and simply refuse to improve. Having those “peaks and valleys” are okay, you just have to know what they are. My FTP is terrible for my category. Because of that I’m careful to always be sheltered, and I don’t bother trying to go solo off the front with 20 miles to go. Heck, I don’t go off the front with one mile to go! There’s nothing wrong with trying something just for the fun of it, but you can’t expect to win by utilizing your weaknesses and avoiding your strengths.

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Course

Strava and Google Maps are the two greatest tools for bike racers. You can easily find the key features of the course, and check how fast others are taking them. When I was planning for a particular 40 mile road race I knew that the decisive hill was going to take me one minute to climb, with a sprint at the end. Because of that I spent a month working on my one minute power, followed by a sprint. That kind of specificity is incredibly important. If you’re planning to win the race on the last hill, it makes a huge difference if the hill is 30 seconds or two minutes, if it’s a 3% grade of a 7% grade. Strava can give you this information and you can train accordingly.

Others

It’s obvious that it would be useful to know everyone else’s strengths, weaknesses and tendencies. Assuming you don’t have this kind of in-depth knowledge, you at least need to know how well teams are represented. As you progress in the categories, team tactics become more and more important. But even without a team you can still succeed.

Plan

This is what ties all the others together. Once you know yourself, the course and your opponents, you can figure out how you can win. Your plan should center around applying your strength and avoiding your weakness. Below I’ve linked to several posts where I’ve planned out my races. You can look at those posts for real-world examples of how I plan to race.

Posts detailing my race planning

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Wrap Up

I firmly believe that most racers focus too much on the fitness aspect of racing, thinking that winning is simply about bludgeoning your opponents with watts. If you’re not one of the (very few) naturally super-talented cyclists, this approach isn’t going to work for you. I would never consider myself “fast”, and yet I am regularly finishing near the front of each race. This is only because I realize that racing well isn’t about being the strongest, it’s about being strong enough and preparing to win.

Finally, I have a YouTube video about how to use Golden Cheetah to help you go through these steps.

 

Race Report: Iowa State RR Championships

2015 Ia State RR

Photo Credit: Leman Northway

What a race! I went into it not sure what to expect, and I came out of it second overall and crowned the Iowa Cat 4 Men’s Road Race State Champion!

Intro: This was it, the big “A” road race for me. I had hesitated to target this race, because the Cat 4 race was 64 miles long. Prior to this race I had never raced over 40 miles, and almost never rode any further than 45 miles (racing or training)! But after getting a win in a 40 mile road race in late June, I felt like I had to give this race a go. Thus I dropped any pretense of “speed work” and focused solely on improving my ability to ride at race pace for 60-70 miles.

Capture

Course/Conditions: It was a hot day (for Iowa), with temps in the 80s. The course is completely exposed with not a hint of shade. As for the course itself, it is a 32 mile clockwise loop, done twice. For the most part it’s extremely flat, but the one southbound stretch includes a couple hills with gradients up to 6% or 7%, and stretching close to a mile.

Field: The Men’s Cat 4 field had 18 starters. I knew a small handful of them, but in general I was fairly clueless about my competition. There were no significant team showings.

Strategy: I strongly believed that this race was going to boil down to fitness, and in particular the ability to ride at race pace for longer than most of us are comfortable with. Due to how flat the course was I fully expected a sprint finish. I felt like if the pace could stay high enough and I had trained properly then I had an excellent chance at finishing well.

My strategy was focused on proper training. I always do the weekly group rides which are at least as fast as race pace, but only last 35 to 40 miles. Thus I knew that I wasn’t yet properly prepared to race 65 miles. I also knew that on solo rides there was no way I could push myself hard enough for that long. Thus my strategy was to tack 25 to 30 miles onto the front of my weekly group rides. This way I would get in the proper distance, and finish fast just like in a real race. I dropped my intervals sessions down to once a week and instead planned my week around this one long ride.

When race day came and I saw how hot it was I knew that winning would boil down to survival. I packed up three water bottles, two Clif bars and a pack of energy gummies and headed out.

2015 Ia State RR #2

Photo Credit: Leman Northmay

Racing: Things started out very controlled and I vowed to just sit in. As expected, a couple people tried some early attacks, but things were quickly shut down. About halfway through the first lap everything had settled down and we were cruising along. Somewhat surprisingly, someone that almost none of us knew went off the front on the flats. The peloton basically ignored it, because it seemed unlikely that someone would stay away for the next 45+ miles.

For the second half of the first lap we put in some chase efforts. Once we made up enough ground that it looked like a catch was inevitable. The peloton slowed up with the intention of letting the guy dangle out front and wear himself out. Instead he went away again! By the start of the second lap he was out of sight and would stay that way for the race. The guy was from Illinois and thus was not eligible for the Iowa State medals.

Going southbound on the second lap we approached the only steep hills on the course. I expected that the peloton would crawl up them to conserve energy. But I knew that this was the only part of the course that actually suited me well. My legs were feeling good so I went to the front and set a decent pace. I did this on the first two steep hills, and it did indeed seem to stop everyone from just crawling up it. This was a weird experience for me, because I was in a sort of in-between state. I did not believe that I could go solo off the front, so it didn’t make sense for me to go 100% on the hills. But I also wanted everyone to feel like they had to keep me in sight, in order to force them to work. I believe that I basically accomplished this, though with a better FTP I would have had more options.

As we entered the last 15 miles of the race guys started cramping up. As I expected, most people simply hadn’t put in the miles to prepare their bodies for this race. Although I was tired my muscles were doing fine. It was encouraging to see others around me suffering, because I knew that meant that I had a good chance. I made sure to keep position in the last couple miles, and was positive it would all come down to a sprint.

I fought intensely for position in that last mile or so. I’ve had some problems recently starting the sprint from too far back, and when someone up front jumps I just run out of room to catch them. So I lined up about fifth wheel in our fast, single-file line. I was careful to not get boxed in, and in fact was even successful in forcing another sprinter to get boxed in.

As we approached the 200m to go sign the pace was high and so still no one had jumped. Our line was far to the right side of the road, and I realized that there was a chance of getting stuck since there was another group on my left. Right then I noticed that the right side had a small gap that I could get through. Since we had just passed the 200m sign I knew I had the legs to finish it off, so I jumped hard. I heard people yelling that I had gone, but no one got on my wheel and I immediately had a good gap. About 25m before the line I glanced back and saw I easily had it and so I let up a bit and cruised across the line. I ended up winning the bunch sprint (and thus second overall) by a few bike lengths. The guy who went up the road early ended up winning by a over a minute! Big kudos to him and a very strong effort.

What I Learned:

  1. Specific preparation can make all the difference. Early in the season I had no plans to target this race because I felt like it didn’t suit me. The relatively few hills and lots of long straights meant that my strengths wouldn’t be much utilized. The finish is a long and slightly downhill drag, so I knew the sprint would favor the pure power guys, which I’m not (I’m more power-to-weight). And yet by doing specific preparation, and in particular preparation that many others weren’t willing to do, I was able to succeed.
  2. Use your strengths, even if they won’t win you the race. On the second lap as we approached the few steep hills I knew that everyone was starting to tire a bit, and left to our own devices we would take it easy up the hills. Since climbing is one of my strengths I decided to act. I went to the front and put out 300 to 500 watts up the hills. These numbers aren’t huge, but since I’m quite light this meant that all the heavier guys needed to be doing much more to keep up. I wasn’t trying to break away, but by keeping the pace high I put some people into the red. This wasn’t a race winning move, but I do believe that it helped me in the end. Marginal gains, as they say.

Analysis: In my three seasons of racing, this race was my most satisfying. Allow me a quick digression: I used to be very into weightlifting. After doing that for several years I realized how simple it is to change your body. Most people feel like it’s impossible to lose weight or bulk up. But that weightlifting experience showed me that these things are very do-able, you just have to commit to it and put in the work (which is why I say “simple”, and not “easy”). This race showed me the same thing for racing. I had tried preparing for races before, but I never really got the results or fitness I wanted. This race was the longest specific preparation period I’ve had for a race. Seeing how it paid off has really showed me that I can do this again for other races. This greatly boosted my confidence and has me looking forward to some specific races next season!

This was my last race of the season and I’m taking a couple weeks off before starting up training for the 2016 race season. In the coming weeks I’ll write up a post about my plans and goals for next season. Until then, good luck and happy racing and training!

Race Report: Sakari Road Race

11782431_969451526426481_2645681813547778024_oPhoto Credit: Donald Lund

I went into this 40 mile road race with high hopes. The course was rolling and had an uphill finish, both things which suit me. In the end I fell well short of my expectations. This was hard for me to stomach, but I also got a lot of lessons out of it.

Intro: A 40 mile road race just outside of Des Moines, IA. This was my second-to-last race of the season, and I had been working on upping my mileage. Thus a 40 mile race seemed comparatively easy.

Sakari route

Course/Conditions: The course was a 13.5 mile loop, repeated 3 times. It was mostly rolling hills, and was just challenging enough to help narrow down a group. We got rained on through most of the race, but never exceptionally hard. This was only my second time racing in the rain, and I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it really wasn’t that bad. I made sure to keep a positive attitude about it, in the hopes of being a leg up on the people who hated rain.

Field: The Men’s Cat 4 field had 19 starters. I only knew three or four of the other racers. They were certainly strong, but I wasn’t going into the race marking anyone.

Strategy: Ultimately, my overly-relaxed mindset was the death of me. I went into the race banking on an uphill sprint finish. I think I was so focused on this because that’s how I won my last race. I half-heartedly told myself to watch out for breakaways, but I wasn’t fully committed to it because I was afraid of losing my legs before the sprint.

Racing: We took the first lap pretty calm, as this was the time that it was raining hardest. I didn’t have any chance to pre-ride the course, so it was nice to get an idea of what I could expect before the racing really turned on.

About halfway through the second lap three people crashed going into the third corner (roughly the halfway point of the course). Immediately a couple people attacked, and I made sure to stick with them. But I was simply too relaxed after catching on, and spent the time chatting with another rider rather than watching the action. What happened was that someone from the dominant team (with 6 riders that day) went off the front, and I had no clue. A few minutes later someone went off the front again, and then one more a couple minutes later. I continued to sit back, because I thought the dominant team had no one up the road, and thus expected them to chase it down. It wasn’t until the last lap that I learned that indeed they did have someone up the road. I felt terrible, and was really disappointed in myself.

If I’m being completely honest with myself, there was one more opportunity for me to make something of the race. At the end of the second lap someone from the dominant team attacked. I didn’t go with him because I had the wrong mindset. I can forgive myself for missing the first person going up the road, but in thinking back about this race, this moment is the one that really wears on me. On the upside, it was a real lesson learned. Not only did I suffer in my placing because of my inactivity, but I also will have the memory of the bitter disappointment in myself.

The last lap was uneventful, and I ended up sprinting with my group. I got roughly 8th or 9th, far out of what I had hoped for.

What I Learned:

  1. Mindset matters. In crits I am much better about having an aggressive mindset, but in road races it’s hard to get myself to be aggressive for several hours. Rather than chatting away, I need to train myself to stay more focused.
  2. Go with your gut feeling. It certainly felt like the dominant team was purposely slowing everyone down after a couple people went off the front. I thought that the didn’t have anyone up there, so I just sat in. But I need to trust the signs around me more.

Analysis: I left this race feeling extremely disappointed in myself. After a couple of days I finally was able to change my mindset from one of dejection, to seeing the value in my poor performance. I’ve got one more road race this season, and having this defeat in my mind will help me come in with the right mindset. I truly believe that this race experience will help me greatly in the future.