Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance. Conditions out of the ordinary often require preparation of the same description. But the perfect prep may not always be possible in the imperfect world of a continental cyclist, and even less so for the everyday athlete. When should we strive to emulate the pros and at what point do we decide to let up and play with the cards we’ve been dealt?
1500, 1600, 1700… I’m refreshing the compass app as we cross the Arizona – New Mexico border. A quick scan ahead shows our accommodation (a host house 40km from the nearest town) sits around the 2000m mark. All good, nothing I haven’t trained and raced at before, feeling fine in the car. Straight out for a ride, heartrate worryingly close to watts, breathing pretty heavily now. Still all good, heart rate was also high thanks to the heat in Thailand just a few weeks back and I felt a million bucks during stage one there, must just be fresh. Back into bed* to recover post travel, throat is feeling pretty scratchy and nose is running like a tap. Still all good, happens after plenty of flights and I still have 36h until race start. On the way to race start, backpack full of decongestants, it’ll clear out on the road, no worries. “Stop the car stop the car!” leaves the mouth of Hunter, our youngest team member, swiftly followed by a semi-digested bagel projectile just as the doors to the 7 seater open. Altitude sickness or just a dodgy burrito? We’ll never really know. All good though, my own stomach is feeling fine, never mind the blocked nose, constant headache, tight chest and jetlag-induced tiredness. Let’s race.
It’s fair to say I came into this race with a ‘she’ll be right’ attitude. Confidence was high after a number of successful stage races earlier in the season and form was good in the leadup. Despite the high altitude and mountainous terrain I’d penciled in a few stages to go for the W and was aiming to keep the GC door open for a sneaky top 10.
Looking back, my head may have been in the clouds and was brought well and truly back to sea level before we even hit the base of the stage one mountain top. After following a few early attacks and ejecting what I can only assume was litres of mucus we managed to get Sam, our road captain, in the break of the day. A few cruisy hours in the peloton ended when we hit an open crosswind section. Thanks to the relative ease of positioning in the US peloton I was straight onto the team attempting to split it and no danger of being dropped. But even for those few minutes of intensity on the flat with 50km to go the sensations weren’t great… Another crosswind section into the base of the climb and this time I was sliding back through the peloton faster than Hunter’s race nutrition was sliding through his digestive system before the road had even tilted up. A dejected 40 minute ascent at something like 70% of FTP (which at this point was also a max effort) had me well down on the results sheet and reevaluating my goals for the week.
Stage two suited me to a T, not for the mountain goats or pure sprinters but somewhere in between. It played out perfectly as planned, a 30-man group coming into the final uphill drag after a hard day, only I’d already been dropped on the final climb… Slightly better than the first stage but still so far off my best it wasn’t funny.
The third stage TT offered an opportunity to rest and clear the sinuses. Without the two key ingredients to produce a good TT (a TT bike and a truckload of watts) on hand the only sensible option was to get the calculator out and do the bare minimum to make time cut followed by a big afternoon spent doing SFA (Sweet Fuck All, continuing with the letter theme).
More than 48 hours of recovery since the last hard effort and the vibes were a little higher coming into the criterium on stage four. With this stage requiring the least RBC’s (no offense, crit pigs) it was our last big chance to take home a result, despite being down to just four riders firing on very few cylinders. With Sam sitting second in the points classification and some extra $ on the line for bonus sprint primes throughout the race, the goal was to target the intermediates. From the first points sprint it was obvious it was going to be tough for anyone to come off Project Echelon’s seven-man train so I adopted the tried and tested method of attacking straight after the intermediate. Everyone knows it’s coming, everyone knows it’s worked before, everyone knows it’ll work many times again.
I’m always amazed in criteriums, firstly by how hard the turns are that my breakaway companions are pulling, then subsequently by how fast they reverse back to the peloton. I managed to float out the front for 27 of the remaining 30 laps, joined by various visitors from the peloton, mopping up every sprint on offer and pocketing some Benjamins for my troubles. Sam snagged himself a first class ticket on the Project Echelon train and came home for second; a much better day for the team but largely thanks to smarts rather than strength.
160km and a backloaded 3000m of vertical means only one thing for the final stage: breakaway. Straight into a solid group of eight not long after the flag drop and morale is high with time checks pushing past six minutes at the half way point. I’m looking at the finish and my climbing legs thinking we need ten if I want half a chance. Letting the eager front runners set most of the pace there’s only three of us left by the Gila Monster with 40km and a lot of uppage before the finish line. Final climb of the day and it’s time to farewell my company and go for home. The alone time doesn’t last long before the GC battle spoils any hopes of an unlikely victory and I grovel home for a painstaking 11th place. Soaring up the GC standings due to some monster time gaps but a long way off making up for the rock bottom start to the tour.
With a bit of cash to sample the local delicacies and a new fan base in Silver City, we’d salvaged something from the final two days. But given the start to the year and strength of the field, we’d come with much higher ambitions. So where did it all go wrong? What could I have done differently coming in?
Should I have gone to train at high altitude? For sure. It’s no secret that altitude acclimation works. But with only a 13-day gap between arriving home from Tour of Thailand and Oceania Championships I didn’t have time for the two or three weeks required to see meaningful oxygen delivery gains. What about squeezing in a week for some possible ventilatory adaptations? This is where some bigger picture thinking comes into play. I spend under 100 days each year at home and this would be the last period at home for the next five or six months. Did I really want to spend the majority of that at the top of a mountain by myself to maybe benefit? No, I was quite happy at home making the most of time with friends and family.
Should I have gone to the race earlier? Definitely. Studies have indicated flying east is tougher for the body’s circadian rhythm to adapt and the general recommendation is to allow a day’s recovery per 1-hour time zone crossed. My two-day turnaround was six short of this… But, riding for a small-budget Continental Team, we don’t have the luxury of arriving a week or so early to each race when on the long haul. With the race organiser only providing two nights of accommodation pre-race, a week worth of food and shelter for six begins to approach five figures very quickly. That money can ultimately be used to compete in more races throughout the year. At this level, pre-race travel is often a case of ‘how late can we leave it’ and the answer this time was ‘too late’.
Should I have done a little less training before travel? Of course. This is one contributing factor to the poor performance that does rest completely on my own shoulders. As endurance athletes, the norm becomes a hard day of training (typically five out of every seven days). It can then become unsettling to stray away from this ‘normal’ routine during periods where more recovery is required. Having just taken an easier week to recover from the race block prior, I was perhaps a little too eager to get in some big days in the hills knowing that these would be important to perform well in the high mountains. As always, what is most important is a full bill of health. I’ve made this mistake many times before (and even written an entire piece on this site about it) but we’re all guilty of pushing the training right to the edge at times; in this instance a little past it. When training around travel: if in doubt, leave it out.
Am I just not good enough? Maybe, but I wouldn’t dare admit that to anyone, especially not myself. Cyclists are notorious for having a myriad of excuses on hand when things don’t go as planned. ‘My brake was rubbing’, ‘I didn’t have my usual drink mix in the bidons’, ‘I ate a whole wheel of cheese by accident last night’ (yes I’ve really received this from an athlete in the post-activity comments on TrainingPeaks before). These may be to protect our egos but are also a crucial psychological tool to get the most out of ourselves next time. We’ve all had the days where we’re floating on the pedals, can barely feel the chain, and we desperately search for this feeling every race day. In reality, those days are few and far between. Having a reason for which to attribute a poor performance allows us to enter the next event with a genuine belief that we are the best on the start line; that if everything goes right we’ll be first across the finish. If you think you can or think you can’t, you’re probably right.
- Altitude acclimation is not overrated
- Longer term planning for events in extreme environments is necessary
- Allow longer for recovery from jetlag when travelling east
- Training around travel: if in doubt, leave it out
- You can’t win ’em all
Thanks for reading! This is something a little different to usual on Cyclist or Scientist. I often do these kind of breakdowns after my own races or with athletes I’m coaching, but this time I thought there may be some practical takeaways for everyone. If you’re wondering why there’s been less going on this site it’s because a lot of my physiology enthusiasm has been directed into The Cycling Performance Club Podcast. Check it out if you haven’t already! Let me know what you think of this type of post race breakdown or if you’d like to see more of this in future. Until then, I’ll keep reading the research papers so you can spend more time on the bike.
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