No one trains five months for an event as gruelling as the Amgen Tour of California CTS Race Experience without clear objectives. The objective may be to simply complete as much of the distance as possible. The objective may be to win every climb, every sprint or even every stage. No matter what your objective is, the key is to grind through every stage, every miles of every stage and keep in mind why you came and what it was you wanted to accomplish. And when you go home you should compare your results with the objectives you had set before going and learn from what went right and what went wrong.
Personally I showed up in California in mid May with the objective of finishing every stage and to win the following climbs:
Stage 2: Empire Grade (the first real climb of the week)
Stage 3: Mount Diablo (because it is Mount Diablo)
Stage 4: Crane Valley Road (toughest climb of the stage and it comes at the end)
Stage 6: Angeles Crest (first Cat 1 climb)
Stage 7: Mount Baldy (the big prize)
If I am lucky my good friend Chris Carmichael isn’t reading this post as he otherwise would be calling me to remind me of the importance to be more than “a one trick poney”, in other words, I need to be more than just a climber. OK, fine Chris, I promise to work on my weaknesses too.
Anyways, the results are in and this is how they stack up: I finished every stage and did even better than anticipated by always finishing with the front group on every stage. I won three of the five climbs I wanted to win, got number two on one of the climbs and got number three on another one. Happy? Yah, pretty happy. Maybe I should do it again next year and have even bigger goals.
Every climb win was different and on each of the three climbs I won I employed a different tactic to win. Here is an analysis of every climb as well as my power files for each climb. I am writing this as I have so many friends who, just like me, love to climb. There is something unique about a hard sustained one hour effort going up a steep hill and I am happy to share with them my recent climbing experience in California.
The yellow line is my power in watts, the green line is my cadence in RPM, the blue line is my speed in kilometers/hour, the orange line is the profile of the climb in meters. The horizontal scale is in kilometers and the dotted yellow horizontal line is the 300 watts level. I draw that line on every power file as a visual reference point only.
Let’s start with Mount Diablo on Stage 3.
As we were getting closer to the bottom of Mount Diablo I made sure I was behind one of the bigger guys to ensure I would benefit from the maximum possible draft. I focused on staying right on his wheel to conserve as much energy as possible. When we got to the bottom of the climb we stopped to refuel. That is when we ran into Kirk Carlsen Jr, a young pro rider (http://www.cyclingnews.com/news/wonderful-pistachios-expands-schedule-for-2012) who is being coached by CTS coach Jim Lehman. I had the opportunity to ride with Kirk a couple years ago in Tucson, AZ. We have since kept in touch via Facebook and email. Before we got on our way after our refuelling stop, Kirk explained to me the climb profile in detail. The guys around me asked about what I had just learned and I made sure Kirk provided my teammates with the same info so I wouldn’t get criticized for have an undue advantage.
I climbed the 9.77 kilometers hill in 27:44 minutes at an average power of 285 watts (normalized power of 290 watts). I climbed at an average speed of 21.1 km/hour and gained 462 meters in elevation (4.9 % grade).
As you can tell from the elevation profile (orange line) the steepest section was at the bottom, in the first four kilometers (average grade of 6.4%). This is what Kirk had told us before we started the climb. It became obvious that I would have to make a move at the beginning if I was going to win this one. As a light rider at 149 pounds I can use the grade to my advantage. Climbing is all about power to weight ratio. In other words, the laws of physics dictate that I will always beat a heavier rider that puts out the same power (in watts) as me on a climb as my power/kilo will be higher. So the steeper the hill the greater the advantage.
Here is the same power file except that I have highlighted in black the best five minute effort of the climb, which was at the bottom of the hill:
As you can see, my best five minute power on that day was at the bottom of the Mount Diablo climb when I put out an average of 322 watts (324 watts normalized). I have also highlighted the initial effort just before the five minute effort (in red “Learn”). That initial effort had as an objective to learn how the guys around me would react to a quicker pace. Although all the strong riders stayed with me no one reacted quickly to my attack. I believe that Kirk realized the same thing as after letting me recover from that attack for a minute or so he went ahead, turned around, looked at me and said: “Come on Alain”. I jumped on his wheel and off we went. Within a minute we had created a gap and that is when I told him: “More watts.” We made the gap big enough to discourage anyone to fight their way back and we rode together to the King of the Mountain (KOM) line. Thank you Kirk, you are a true champion and a gentleman.
When I crossed the KOM, I was really happy to see my twenty one year old daughter Emmanuelle there. Not only she got to see her father came in first but she got a chance to meet Kirk. You see, two years ago Kirk was raising money and he auctioned off one of his Champion jersey on Ebay and I had bought it for Emmanuelle. She has been wearing it proudly ever since.
Crane Valley Road (Stage 4)
The Crane Valley win was totally different as I won it in the last kilometer. Here is the power file of this climb:
The Crane Valley Road was a 7.9 kilometer climb averaging a 5.2% grade and a 419 meter elevation gain. In the 26:30 mins it took to complete the climb I put out an average of 261 watts (272 watts normalized). It was only Marco and I at the front for the whole climb. Although Marco’s breathing was way heavier than mine he is a very strong competitor and no matter how many times I pushed the pace above 300 watts he just stayed right next to me. I then decided that I was going to attack him with one kilometer to go. My thought was that this would either kill him, kill me or kill both of us but I had to be prepared to lose to win, as my CTS coach Jason tells me all the time. So this is what the power file for the last 1.5 kilometer of the climb looks like.
You can clearly see that I first took the power to over 300 watts for about 90 seconds. I knew this effort wouldn’t hurt me too much as I was feeling good but if I was right about how Marco was feeling based on his breathing I thought it would hurt him a little bit, right before the big attack I was planning. I recovered for a little more than a minute and launched a huge attack with a maximum power of almost 650 watts. I completely buried myself in the process but put a gap between me and Marco. Knowing that Marco is very strong and determined (not only physically but also mentally), I knew I couldn’t take a chance and just “ride to the line”. With 200 meters to go I emptied the tank and went as hard as I could to discourage any counter attack.
Angeles Crest (Stage 6)
Angeles Crest was the second biggest prize of the whole Tour (after Mount Baldy on Stage 7). Angeles Crest is a Category 1 climb. It took me 1:10 hrs to climb that 23 kilometer beast. We gained 1,008 meters over that distance (average grade of 4.2 %)
You will notice that initially the pace was pretty relaxed with the power being solidly below 300 watts. Then as the slope got a little steeper the pace went up and power went up. This is typical in the peleton: “You want the group at the top to be as small as possible”. If the pace was too easy on the way up and stronger and heavier sprinters were allowed to stick with the climbers to the finish line we could have our butt kicked big time unless it was very steep before the finish line. So on the ascent of Angeles Crest the peloton didn’t take any chance and we made sure only the climbers were allowed in. Otherwise the climb was done at a moderate to hard, but sustainable pace.
All the action was in the last five kilometers.
With five kilometers we had a slight descent and I hid behind coach Kirk in order to use as much of the draft as I could. When we got climbing again I decided to go to the front and set the pace. I went for what we call Climbing Repeat range or just about where my lactate threshold would be (the point where aerobic and anaerobic meet). This is a hard but sustainable pace that puts the hurt in everyone. I then came back to the middle of the pack and used another tactic taught to me by my coach: “Chat and kid around with the guys.” No one (not including me) wants to chat or make jokes after an attack like the one I launched. But the goal is make your opponents think that you are not suffering as much as them. It is called bluffing. After making my competition think I was fresh, I launched the final attack: “I rode the last kilometer really hard and didn’t stop my effort until I cross the KOM line”.
Part 2 coming soon.