The Philly File

Although I've been racing my bike "for a living" half my life, this year was my first as a professional, and thus my first chance to ride the USPRO road championships in Philadelphia. As a rider and a coach, I've been focused all season on trying to figure out what it would take for me personally just to finish this race, and how to train properly to reach that level of fitness.

Based on information and data collected with the help of my Senior Associate Coach John Verheul (who doubles as my coach) and good friend Kevin Monahan (who's ridden the race a number of times previously), we tried to come up with some estimates of what the race would require in terms of power at threshold (measured in watts/kilogram), as well as total amount of energy expended (measured in kilojoules). We estimated that as a minimum, a rider would likely have to be capable of 5.2 watts/kilogram at threshold, and have the endurance to put out almost 1000 KJ/hour, for 5000-6000 KJ, total. Also, we estimated that a rider would likely have to be capable of averaging 3.0 watts/kg over the course of the entire event.

My preparation for Philly week consisted of a winter/spring base period culminating with stage races in Solano and Redlands, CA, followed by a short intensity period including seven 100K crits in 8 days, and a final tune up with the 8-day Tour of Ireland 2 weeks before Philly. I came away from Ireland with a stage win on the last day, and was feeling very good about my form, at least relative to myself. I didn't know where it would leave me for Philly relative to my peers, however. My SRM was in Germany getting a tune-up beginning when I left for California through my return from Ireland, so I only had my results and good feelings to quantify my form with. My previous training had shown me at 5.1 w/kg at threshold before California, so hopefully my form had improved since then.

As it happened, Philly week went well for me. I made it about halfway through Lancaster before finally popping, in a race where only 23 riders finished and half the field was dropped on lap 2. Trenton went even better, where I led the points competition until the final sprint, eventually taking second (but just ahead of Andrea Tafi and Lars Michelson of CSC!) All signs pointed to good legs for Philly, but still, I had no idea what was in store for me. In the end, I finished the race in 85th place, coming off the lead group the final time up Manayunk Wall, and finishing in the 3rd group of about 30 riders, 6:05 down on the winner. Additionally, I now had all the data now from my SRM to determine just what kind of fitness it takes to finish Philly, and an idea of what kind of fitness it would take to finish in the lead group as Kevin had done.

The first thing I looked at were averages and maximums for the race. The hard data was:

6:02 Total time
4:22 actual pedaling time, with a 260 watt average (1:20 of coasting!)
Total Averages: 197w, 2.8 w/kg, 150 hr, 26 mph
Maximums: 1147w, 16.26 w/kg, 193 hr, 46 mph
4292 Kilojoules

Right off the bat, some of this data was surprising; an unbelievable 1:20 of coasting? Because the course has a number of turns and descents, it makes sense that there would be a fair amount, but an hour twenty was a shock. Additionally, the total number of kilojoules for the day was lower than what I had expected by at least 1000. The consensus seems to be that overall, this was a less difficult edition of the race than past years. At the same time, it was the best field Philly's ever had, and 63 people didn't finish. At the very least, it wasn't easy. So, with such a low total energy expenditure, as well as a fairly low average watts for the day, what makes the race so hard?

When you look at the remaining data, the answer is clear: the Manayunk Wall. Of course, you'd expect a climb to make the race hard. But this climb was hard in a way that you might not expect. Philly is not a climber's race. Certainly, you have to have good endurance, but it also appears at first glance that you have to have good anaerobic capacity, as well as lactate tolerance, and the aerobic fitness to be able to recover from repeated anaerobic efforts.

Viewing a diagram of the heart rate (in red), speed (in green) and power (in pink) of the race, a pattern can be seen evolving.

Hopefully, you can see 10 distinct spikes in power and heart rate, and 10 distinct valleys in speed at those same points. Also, it should be visible that the pink power curve at the bottom starts high, gently goes down over most of the race, and gradually rises again in the final third of the event. This paints a picture of the hard tempo at the start of the race before the early break went away, the 10 ascents of the Wall, and the rising tempo of the race in the closing 5 laps of the race.

The next step then is to try to get a sense of the actual values and work being done as the race evolved. One way to do that is to take a look at the time spent in certain power ranges. The ranges we use at Cycle-Smart are identical to those created by Dr. Andy Coggan, though we use descriptive names as well as numbers. For me, based on an estimated threshold power of 360 watts, or 5.1 w/kg, those zones are:

Level 1. Recovery: less than 198w or 2.8 w/kg
Level 2. Easy: 202 — 270w, 2.9 — 3.9 w/kg
Level 3. Light: 274 — 324w, 3.9 — 4.6 w/kg
Level 4. Middle: 328 — 378w, 4.7 — 5.4 w/kg
Level 5. High: 382 — 432w, 5.5 — 6.2 w/kg
Level 6. Submax: more than 436w or 6.2 w/kg

So then, taking a look at the time and percent spent in each power zone:

0 Value: 1:22, 23%
Level 1: 2:03, 34%
Level 2: 0:52, 14%
Level 3: 0:26, 7%
Level 4: 0:23, 6%
Level 5: 0:18, 5%
Level 6: 0:37, 10%

This is where you can really get a picture of how hard the race was (or wasn't), and in what way. You see the incredible 23% of the race that was spent coasting. Add to that the 34% of the race that was spent in Recovery and the 14% of the race that was spent in Easy, and you have 71% of the race where I was not necessarily under pressure. Sounds easy? It wasn't. Take a look at the remaining time. 15% of the race, a total of 0:55, was spent at a power above my threshold. It only takes a few minutes of anaerobia to get dropped, and the Manayunk Wall provided those few minutes 10 times.

A 2D histogram of the power, shows a tall, wide peak below threshold, and between 1.5-4.5 w/kg, showing that that's where I spent the majority of my time when pedaling. However, there's also a noticeable plateau between 5.5 and 7 w/kg (which for me is 400-500 watts), and again between 7 and 8 w/kg, before finally drifting off completely. So, what was happening between 5.5 and 7 w/kg? Again, the Wall.

I wanted to see exactly what I was doing for watts (and heart rate) each lap up the Wall, and match that up with a description of what happened that lap, and how I felt. Typically, the flat lead-in to the base of the climb was a full-on field sprint, with teams leading out their best riders for good position to either attack, or not have to make up ground up the climb. You enter the climb by making a narrow right hand turn off a flat, wide road, into a narrow, cobbled chute for perhaps 25 meters, take another right on the cobbles for 25 more meters, and then a final left hand turn on the cobbles to finally start the climb. The climb is about 1K, and the first half isn't too bad. Most laps I was able to do this in my 38 x 19 or 21. The 3rd quarter of the climb gets noticeably steeper (and louder), and I found myself almost exclusively in the 23 here, sometimes wishing for a 25. The final quarter starts to level off, but remains hard because the field is single file at this point, and the leaders have made the right hand turn at the top and started down the descent. I would drop down to the 21, 19, or 17 here, and then into the big ring around the corner at the top. Lap by lap, my performance evolved like this, looking at lap, time, average watts, peak watts, and average heart rate:

Lap 1: 2: 54, 405w, 1000 peak, 179 hr; fairly mellow on the climb, though the pack was still nervous and jumpy overall until the early break went away.
Lap 2: 2:56, 419w, 744 peak, 177 hr
Lap 3: 2:54, 415w, 616 peak, 174 hr
Lap 4: 2:48, 429w, 905 peak, 179 hr
Lap 5: 2:46, 420w, 755 peak, 175 hr
Lap 6: 2:44, 442w, 728 peak, 179 hr; here's where the race really started, and the group began to split. On this lap I had to jump across a gap over the top of the climb near the KOM line.
Lap 7: 2:46, 436w, 850 peak, 178 hr
Lap 8: 2:46, 416w, 731 peak, 171 hr; this was the first lap I began to struggle. Notice that my average and peak watts are still consistent with earlier laps. Yet my perceived exertion started to go through the roof, and my heart rate response dropped dramatically. I was getting tired, and at the same time, the group was starting to really attack the climb.
Lap 9: 2:42, 429w, 614 peak, 170 hr; on this is the lap I came off completely, and chased for about 10 minutes with a small group before getting on just after Strawberry Hill. Again, I was able to maintain the same power as previous laps, but the group was raising the tempo and I couldn't respond.
Lap 10: 2:48, 404w, 710 peak, 173 hr. The race completely exploded the final time up. Ended up in the third group, which rolled in 6 minutes down.

From all of this data, my conclusions were that at least this year, Philly was to a certain degree a relatively easy race overall. The majority of the race was ridden well below threshold, and wasn't the kind of race where the entire field is on the rivet from start to finish, popping off one at a time. What makes the race difficult is that every lap there's a field sprint for the bottom of the Wall, and then the race goes nuts to varying degrees each time up. It was a race that was essentially on or off. Most of the time we were "off", riding around easy. When we were "on", though, the field would rip apart and come back together with a few less riders each time.

To do well at Philly, then, a rider would have to possess certain qualities:

An excellent VO2 power to weight ratio, to be able to make a high intensity, 3-4 minute (including the run-in to the climb) effort so as to stay with the leaders, or attack on the climb.
Excellent aerobic fitness, even though very little of the race was done at threshold. Both because VO2 power is a function of threshold power, but also for the ability to recover from the repeated VO2 efforts required by the Wall.
Excellent endurance, so as to be able to make repeated VO2 efforts over the course of 6 hours of racing, and in particular in the final hour.

To actually win the race, at least this year, a rider would then have to add good max watts to the equation in order to finish off the 6 hours of racing with a strong sprint. Is it a wonder then, that the winner's list at Philly includes sprinters like Eric Heiden, Roberto Gaggioli, Michel Zanoli, George Hincapie, Henk Vogels, Fred Rodriguez, and this year, Stefano Zanini? Or that the first 3 Americans this year were speedsters Mark McCormack, Kevin Monahan, and David Clinger?

In the end, it seems that I was as well prepared for Philly as I could have been based on the level I've been at over these past few years of semi-retirement. I proved to myself that after all this time I still had another level of fitness in me, and that I was capable of racing with the country's best. It also gives me hope and motivation that there's even more improvement to be had. Knowing what's required of me now at Philly, I only hope I get another chance next season!