Thursday, June 23, 2011

Hill riding strategies for road races

While racing over 600km in 5 days in the beautiful, and really, really hilly Beauce region of Quebec, I had plenty of time to think about how to ride hills. The area is so hilly, that pretty soon we weren't even calling anything shorter than a kilometre, or less than 10% grade, a hill! But now back in the normal world, they were hills. Pretty serious hills.

The second KOM of the second stage was paricularly brutal, 2.8km of 5.2% with
sections over 20%, even though it was a "sprinter's stage".
Photo: Rob Jones, Cycling News

I had a number of strategies for handling the hills, depending on whether I knew it was coming and whether I had a choice in the matter, and I thought I would share my thoughts on how to ride hills in road races with everyone.

Don't pull to the bottom of a hill

The first one is easy: avoid doing all the work in the lead-up to a hill! It seems obvious, but when I'm hurting in a race, sometimes I lose focus and mess up tactically. Even if it feels like you're not going hard, the guys behind you still have far more energy to hit it (or attack) when the hill arrives, and might leave you in the dust. I certainly didn't need to worry about this one at Beauce! but I did go off the front of the pelton on stage 1 primarily because the pace-makers on the front of the peleton behind me just didn't want to step it up a notch on a hill.

Sag Climbing

The principle is easy...start closer to the front, ride slower and put out fewer watts than most, and end near the back. Use lower-effort times in the race, like lulls between attacks and the start of hills, as I mention below, to move back to a better position closer to the front of the pack.

Climbing like this requires that you know how long the climb is, so that you can lose ground to the leaders at the correct rate, leaving you near the back as you crest. It also helps to have a good idea of what will happen as the leaders crest. Will they attack? If so, trying to stay with an accelerating peleton by sprinting the last part of the hill, while the leaders are on the flats, certainly wont save any energy. If there is a selection, and you find yourself in the second (or third, or fourth) group at the top, you may also use more energy working hard to catch back. But if you're fairly sure the pace wont change too much, it can definitely be worthwhile.

I plan to use sag climbing when it's either early in the race, when I don't expect people to burn matches hitting it on or after the hill, or when there is a break off the front, again decreasing the chance people will attack at the top. Also, if I'm running out of gas later in a race, I will drift back on the climb (assuming I can get to the front before the hill starts) just to avoid blowing up.


Have you noticed that when you're in the middle or back of the pack, you have to brake just before you start the hill? This is because the front of the pack has already arrived at the hill, while you're still on the flat or downhill. Sling-shotting allows you to use the momentum from the downhill or flats preceding the hill to save energy and/or move up in the pack. Generally, you need to be on the edge of the peleton, so that you can choose when to pull out from behind the riders slowing in front of you and pass them. I find this best if you can see the hill coming, and there is enough space on the road to pass people.

Allow me to give an example. Picture a 90-rider peleton riding three-abreast, going slightly downhill at 45km/h, and approaching a fairly long hill of 10% grade. The people behind the leaders might be pedaling very lightly, or not at all. As soon as the leaders hit the hill and slow down, riders behind them will often brake to match the speed of the leaders ahead and maintain their position in the pack. However, if you are at back of the pack (unlikely where you want to be), you are roughly 60 meters behind the front riders. In 60 meters, they have slowed to their hill-climbing speed (perhaps around 20km/h), while you are just hitting the hill and still doing 45km/h. At this point sometimes the peleton will fan out across the road as riders, consciously or unconsciously, sling-shot up beside the racers at the front, to avoid braking and save energy.

Ideally, I start just far back enough that by the time I run out of momentum, I'm very close to the front. This of course depends on how much faster you expect to be going than the front of the pack. For example, if the road slowly gets steeper, you may not have any extra speed to sling-shot past other riders. However if you are on rolling terrain, for example the back leg of the Stampede Road Race course in Madden, there is a good opportunity to gain a few places as the peleton's speed ebbs and flows over each roller. The Stampede course isn't the ideal situation, because the road is narrow enough that the peleton may already fill the entire lane, leaving no space to move past people. Regardless of the road you are on, you should always use caution when swinging out around the riders ahead, both to respect the center-line rule if it is in effect, and to watch out for other riders who are doing the same or not expecting you to come along-side/past them.

Spin it to win it

Not as much of a climbing tactic as a strategy for saving your guns: try to get into a smaller gear than necessary, but one which still allows you to still apply pressure at a reasonable cadence, so that you don't need to down-shift once the pressure is on. Mountain-bikers will be familiar with this. You don't want to have to change from your big to your small ring after you get bogged down and need to keep applying pressure. If possible, switch to your small ring before the hill and cross-chain a bit (maybe 39-13), so that you can shift up on the cassette as your speed drops off and don't have to big-ring the whole hill. The same applies when accelerating out of a corner - I often see people not down-shift as they enter the corner, and end up having to push a giant gear, like a 53-12, as they accelerate from low speed. This leads to poor acceleration and trashing your fast-twitch muscles for later in the race.

Rolling off the top

This strategy is almost the opposite of sag-climbing. It actually makes those try to sag-climb, or those dangling near the back, work harder or get dropped. If you are able to finish the hill at the front of the pack, you will likely be tired and want to slow down to recover. However, try to keep the same effort, or even surge a little, to get back up to speed - around 40km/h is a common race speed on a flat road. You are forcing those at the back to match your speed when they are still on the hill, perhaps doing 20km/h, or they will lose contact with the wheel ahead. And because you are now going fast enough for drafting to be more effective, they lose out on that all-important draft at the higher speed.

I remember this being done very effectively at Banff Bikefest in 2010. The Lenovo team was working hard on the front, keeping the break's lead in check to protect their team leader's GC lead. This meant that they were tired in the latter part of the race, falling to the back of the peleton on the hill. Other teams on the front ramped the pace as they crested the first main hill on Tunnel Mountain Drive, and each lap it seemed one of the Lenovo team would get dropped. In the end, the Lenovo team's efforts kept their team leader fresh for the end of the race, and he was able to keep the pace high and finish in the pack, to win the overall GC for the race, but them being dropped certainly made the outcome much less certain!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Tour de Beauce update #3

Today's stage was in the old/bar/touristy area of Quebec City, 9 laps of a circuit that included maybe 200 meters of 15%, followed by 1km of less-steep climbing. I could feel the big guys turn the screws when we hit this section, and I got popped first lap. Can't give up prematurely though...I did a solo TT for nearly 100km before getting pulled with one lap to close!

Not a super day for the team, I think we lost 4 guys today. Although we didnt have anyone in the winning break, Seb finished strong in the pack, so at least there's that.

Great crowd turn-out, especially on the climb. There can be no dogging it when hundreds of people are watching and cheering! On my third time up, as I was going through leg- and lung-burning hell, I could see in my periphery a guy running beside me dressed in black lingerie...I saw him after the race, and he was also sporting a blow-up doll. haha

So that's the end of my Beauce racing. I'll be cheering for my H&R boys from the sidelines tomorrow, the final day, and still making the most of the *amazing* breakfast and dinner buffets the race provides all the racers :) Pretty sure I'll still be in calorie deficit for the week though!

Huge thanks to all the support from everyone! Great to see Nick and Jocelyn after the race, even in my sorry state.

Of course, there's no rest for the wicked: Nationals in Burlington next weekend! I'll be riding support for our key dudes...pretty sure I can handle bottle duty now ;)

Friday, June 17, 2011

Tour de Beauce update #2

Yesterday was one of the highlights of my cycling "career", fetching bottles and closely a (tiny) gap in the crosswind for my teammate, Sebastian, who finished 3rd on the stage!!

It was another long race, 150+km, capped off by a climb to the observatory at the top of Mont Megantic. Alternatively, I could say it was 480km of racing in three days, finishing with half of Apex, or three of the You Yangs climb, or...Toronto would be....30 times from Queens Way into High Park?? haha Anyway, intimidating.

The day started out calmly enough, a few surges until a break stayed off, and nothing more than hard tempo on hills for the first 50km that I can remember (could be selective memory...). After 50km, we're allowed to go back to the caravan to feed, so it was time for me to get bottles. The rolling terrain meant going back for bottles was challenging. I'd usually get 6 or 7, so a few were stuffed down the front/back of my jersey, and I tried to time it so that I wasn't carrying, handing out, or taking bottles on the uphill, and I wasn't riding beside the team car at too high a speed. Didn't always succeed. :)

There was one particularly memorable feed: I'd just gotten my last bottle - usually the driver gives me a bit of a whip to help me sprint back to the back of the pack, and I had accelerated in front of the car. As I did so, I saw something happening in the pack ahead - I saw everyone was bunny-hopping train-tracks diagonally crossing the road. Crap! I had a bottle in one hand, which I momentarily considered/tried squeezing down the back of my jersey with the other, but I was approaching too fast, around 50 or 60kmh - I opted to turf it. I then rather ungainly jumped the tracks - the bottles weigh almost as much as my bike! Both bottles in my frame bounced out, but I made it through and rejoined the pack. However now I only had four bottles left, and had to go back pretty soon thereafter. haha

The next chunk of the race was pretty straight forward. I got a random half a Pepsi from one of Jamie Sparling's Raleigh team mates, rolled through some hills, and chatted with Jamie a little. Always stoked to race with him, both because he's always genial character and because it often means I'm breaking into a new level of racing...last time was the Invited Men's race at Banff 2009 when I was a lowly cat 3.

Next up was the final KOM. I maxed out quickly and began falling off the back. It was one of those times, when you're sooo close to the pack, but they're slowly slipping away...funnily enough, I ended up rolling with another dude I'd had a bit of an altercation with earlier in the race. :) We lit it up at the top and gunned it for a few km, weaving through caravan cars to catch back. We'd just caught them at the base of a hill, when I realized they were making a hard right turn to go up a hill. I was still in my 50-11 by the time I'd slowed to almost stopped, and now I had to start up a 10%er. Damn.

We ended up forming a gruppetto of about 10 guys, and knocked off the last 20-odd km to the base of the final climb: 5km of 10%. Then it was *suffer time* as our group exploded and we all slogged up to the finish. I heard my name and Sebastian's name announced as I rolled across the line, totally gassed. Team manager Mark was there to give me a push to the car and tell me 'good job' and that Seb came third....woooo!! Great moment.

Today was the TT, a mostly-downhill out, uphill back 20km TT, which I had to finish within 20% of the winner's time to not get time-cut. Given that Svein Tuft, who came 2nd at the TT world championships, was there, I couldn't really "save myself"....managed a 30:07, so I live to fight another day.

Tomorrow we head to Quebec City for a 120km circuit race. Same as Nationals a few years back? Really looking forward to it...beautiful city, and crowds are great for helping me dig deep. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Tour du beauce update

> Soloed the last 30km of yesterday's Tour de Beauce opening stage for an inconsequential 23rd. Still pretty friggen fun. Of course, they could have pulled me back in a second, but sometimes being a nobody is a good thing! Anyway, found out later it was 'disrespectful to the peleton'...cycling etiquette thing. Check.
> Was already regretting that move 30km into today, when I got dropped the first time...was a long, hard hard day in the saddle. I think I ended up getting dropped 4 times total, but also got back to the team car for bottles a few times while we were rolling at 50kmh, because I was on bottle duty again. I told Zack afterwards that he got the award for handing me bottles at the highest speed, 86kmh! haha
> After a seriously brutal climb, I saw on my bike computer we still had 5km to the KOM...oh god. It wasn't for a few km later that I realized my bike computer had stopped working, and we only had the last, flat 20km run in to the finish. haha Thank christ. Race ended in a field sprint (and a thank god! from me), so there won't be any gc changes, other than time bonuses.
> Tomorrow is the mountain stage, which will shake up the gc. And really, really hurt!
> Thanks a ton for the support, guys!! Really. Can't understate how much it helps when I'm bleeding out the eyeballs :)

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Call up to the big leagues

Just got a call...well, technically I got a text, prompting me to call back...I'm making this far more difficult than it needs to be...what I mean to say is:

I'm going to Beauce, baby!

Time to shift gears. Like from 1st to 5th!

For those that have never heard of it, this is probably the best description of the level.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Tough times

Another lovely sunny rest day in Saint-Sauveur. It would be nice if it were accompanied with the glow of success... These past couple of weekends have been challenging both physically and in the aftermath, mentally.

Killington Stage Race takes place in central Vermont, which at this time of year is lush and humid. All four of us Quebec-based H&R boys were there to contest the race.

Friday was a relatively flat circuit race, each of the 4 laps having a gradual ascent over the first half, and decent to the finish, so we planned to lead out our big boy, Brad, for the fast downhill finish. The technical guide for the race suggested a 55-11 for sprinters!

The race was fast and furious until a break was established, including Nick to represent the black and green. However with a lap to go, it all came together, so we started preparing for the sprint finish. Unfortunately unnamed eager beavers on the team started our leadout way (way way) too early, and we were gassed by 3km to go. The leadout was swarmed and Brad was stuck in the melee. Despite Matt pulling out a surprising 10th and my 14th, the result were worthless for GC (at least 80% of the 115+ riders were still in the peleton, and with a mass finish like that everyone gets the same finish time), stage winnings (money only going 3 deep), and general team happiness at having failed to execute our plan.

The next day's time trial was mostly a false flat, so we were again betting on Brad to crush. That didn't happen, and we didn't really have any other personal victories to rally behind either.

The last day was the road race, featuring two worthy KOMs. We were hopeful that the final huge 4km climb would negate the team tactics of the bigger squads, and with Nick, highest placed in GC, also being a good climber, we wanted to protect him for the finale.

Unfortunately, right after Nick bridged to a break ( I had a blow-out and as I rolled from 50km/h to a stop on $4000 wheels with no air in the back tire, I had a little meltdown.

What can I say? I panicked.

It was very much a Redlands deja vu moment...despite this time being well positioned about 10-15th wheel... Once I stopped swearing, I got off to take my wheel off, realized it was not down the cassette, got back on, started trying to change gears but being SRAM and me freaking out, I changed up instead, as the neutral wheel guy runs up, pulls off the wheel, I finally change down, he throws a wheel on, I hit it, not sure if he will pace me, he pulls his car in front just as we hit a short climb, I kill myself trying to get close to him on the uphill and then get closer on the downhill. He stayed about 3-4 meters away, and we were doing about eventually he left to catch the peleton.

From there I went as hard as I could and was sooo close to the back of the caravan (i.e. support/officials' cars following the race) just as they hit a decent hill...I was about 100 meters back when the peleton crested, taking the cars with them. Didn't see them again.

I talked to the wheel guy afterwards...they're pro SRAM/Zipp neutral support, so I figured he would be able to tell me what to do. He said that I should be just inches from his back bumper to get a real draft, BUT I had to give him the thumbs down to slow down, because he can't be unexpectedly slowing down in front of riders and freaking them out. Seems reasonable.

Anyway, I TTed for the remaining 2/3 of the race, 65km or so, determined to make time-cut. I experienced absolute hell as I rode through a friggen paradise...old towns, cheering locals, a river running by the road, and hills thick with brilliant green spring foliage, all to make time cut. Ended up passing a few dudes of the final climb, and finished within the timecut, 27 min down...although they don't seem to have cut anyone. I heard Nick fell out of the break, but the break was caught just before the final climb, and he managed to get 8th for the stage.

After a four days to recover, train, taper and generally get my head back in the game, we headed north east to the Charlevoix region of Quebec, know for hills, hills, more hills, and good cheese.

The first race was a 17km TT. I was feeling motivated and quite rested, and dare I say, prepared! Nick helped me tape on a tubular for my rear Zipp 808 the night before, so I was running the triathlete special: 404 front and 808 rear. Light, but deep enough to be wicked-aero. Tuned my gears during a good warmup, and got psyched while avoiding thinking about the brute I would be following down the start ramp (he went on to win the stage).

I headed out at a good clip, conserving a little since it was slightly downhill and a tailwind. Road was a little bumpy, and then crack! Oh god, not the 808... Still seemed to be rolling fine. A short while later, another crack...and I felt my position was now a little off: seat post had slipped down. Crap. I still rode hard, but gradually my seat got to the point where I was riding a clown bike. My quads were on fire, but I hadn't been passed...was I keeping my Garneau 30-second man at bay? No, it turns out my 30-second and minute men hadn't started the race, so I had kept my one-and-a-half (or maybe even 2 minute) man at bay, just, so I ended up 2:20 behind the winner for 41st. Boo.

Back to motel, eat, sleep, eat, warmup for crit, snafu at the lineup so we started at the back. I worked my way up to not-quite-at-the-back for 43rd. Boo x 2.

Last stage on Sunday, 3rd race in 24 hours. Beautiful course, quite a bit of climb up to the two-thirds mark, then ridiculous amounts of climbing. I sucked, finished in the 3rd group for around 40th. Definitely the hardest result to deal excuses for this one... Perhaps it's time to try my hand at golf? haha Nick finished 7th, so he is in great form for Beauce next week.

A little sightseeing and dinner in Quebec City was a nice way to lift the spirits before the long drive home.
Shrine of Sainte Anne de Beaupré