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Stephen Ettinger Road vs Mountain Power

August 9, 2016 | , ,

By Stephen Ettinger

In July I raced two separate Stage races, BC Bike Race and Cascade Cycling Classic, both on a bit of a whim after finding out that I didn’t make the US Olympic Team selection.

BC Bike Race took place over seven days, on some of the most quintessential mountain bike terrain out there. The days were typically between 40-60km, of sinuous singletrack, with limited road and gravel sections. We climbed between 1500-2000m per day, and the stages typically clocked in between 2.5 and 3.5 hrs (although we had one ‘TT’ day and one ‘XC’ day that were shorter). I’d done a few weekend ‘stage races’ before, both on the road and MTB, but those were usually three or four-event races over two days. This was by far the longest event I’ve ever done.

Coming directly on the heals of BC Bike Race (one week later, with US National Championships sandwiched between), was the Cascade Classic road race. Over five days, we raced three road stages, a crit and a TT. The road stages were between 150-180km, and had a similar amount of climbing as BC Bike Race; between 1500-2000m each day. By the time we’d finished racing Cascade Classic, I had raced 14 of the previous 17 days. My goals and ‘job’ were different during each race. Because BCBR was the longest race I’d ever done, my intention was to stay near the front, but race conservatively, to see how my body adapted during the week. I was going for stage wins, and trying to win the overall, if things fell my way. I was put to work on the front at Cascade Classic, but the goal each day was to ride to exhaustion in effort to best position our GC riders with Rally Cycling. In reality, that job probably more resembled what the racing was like at BC Bike Race, because instead of spending my days coasting in the peloton catching a draft and punching it for a few minutes at the end of the day, I was instead working working working during those 3-4 hour stages. I can tell you there was very little drafting or resting at any point during BCBR. We were pedaling all day, and in the few moments when we weren’t, it was a full body effort getting through technical descents.

 

So how did the two races compare when we dive into the numbers?

Going into this block of racing (just prior to World Championships) I had just done a 20 min power test, putting my threshold 5.65 W/kg. At first glance of the numbers, it seems that Cascade Classic was a ‘harder’ event. The TSS scores were higher for the Cascade Classic stages, with the road stages ranging between 210 and 240. The longest days at BCBR only ranged between 175 and 210 TSS points. I definitely did more ‘Work’ during the Cascade Classic stages too, up to 4000kJ per day.

Over 7 days at BCBR I totaled 1140 TSS points, in Cascade Classic 804.3 TSS points. This probably explains why BCBR felt so much harder than the Cascade Classic. There was also a huge upper body component to BCBR that didn’t exist at Cascade Classic. When I wasn’t pedaling in BC, I was still working hard, but at Cascade when I wasn’t pedaling I was probably resting.

During what I perceived as the ‘hardest’ day of BCBR, Stage 3, my average power was 253W and normalized power was 299 W (3.5 W/kg and 4.25 W/kg respectively) over 60km and 1400m of climbing.

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I took over the Leaders Jersey that day, which made the effort a bit sweeter! Stage 3 was most similar to what I experienced in Cascade Classic too. Lots of pedaling, and no where to rest. Now compare that to what I thought was the “hardest” day of Cascade Classic, also coincidently Stage 3. The day was 163km, with 1500m of climbing and nearly 4 hours of racing. We were defending the Leaders Jersey, and I spent lots of time chasing down breaks and riding on the front once one got away, to keep it in check. I averaged 264 W and my Normalized power was 296 W. That was after A LOT of time spent riding tempo on the front. It was a bit longer than Stage 3 of BCBR, and hence had a higher TSS score, even though the power was strikingly similar.

 

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I had my highest 2 minute and 5 minute power efforts of BCBR during Stage 4; 467 W and 439 W (6.67 W/kg and 6.27 W/kg respectively). Despite BCBR Stages 3 and 4 scoring the highest TSS scores of the week, the most ‘intense’ day of BCBR was Stage 1, which started with a 50 minute, nearly 20km climb. My average power over the day was 272 W and Normalized power was 325 W (3.8 W/kg and 4.6W/kg) This stage only clocked in at 2:24 and 45km, whereas Stages 3 and 4 were over 60km and both nearly 3.5 hours long.

 

 

BCBR Cascade Cycling Classic
Average TSS load per Stage 160.2 TSS 160.8 TSS
Highest Normalized Power 325 W or 4.6 W/kg (Stage 1) 307 W or 4.4 W/kg (Stage 5)
Highest Average Power 272 W or 3.8 W/kg (Stage 1) 270 W or 3.9 W/kg (Stage 5)
20 min Peak Power 360 or 5.2 W/kg (Stage 1) 323 W or 4.6 W/kg 1 (Stages 5)
5 min Peak Power 439 W or 6.3 W/kg (Stage 4) 376 W or 5.4 W/kg (Stage 1)
2 min Peak Power 467 W or 6.7 W/kg (Stage 4) 448 W or 6.4 W/kg (Stage 1)

Compare all that to the most intense day spent on the front of the race at Cascade Classic. Stage 5 had plenty of climbing (1950m), and a lot on the line in defending the leaders Jersey. But it was also shorter than Stages 1 and 5, just 3 hours of racing over 130km. I averaged 270 W, and normalized 307 W during that day. Compare that to the aforementioned Stage 1 of BCBR, pretty similar, just a touch longer. At Cascade Classic, my peak power was nowhere near what it was at BCBR, the peak 2 min power of the whole event was 448 W during Stage 1 (6.4 W/kg).

 

I definitely fatigued much more in BCBR than I did during Cascade Classic. Despite absolutely racing at my limit on Stage 7 of BCBR, on a shorter “XC” day, I was only able to average 235 W and normalize 295 W. Thats a 10% decrease in Normalized power over the week. My Max HR also declined significantly during the event. On Stage 1 I hit 171 bpm, and on Stage 7, only 158 bpm. During that big 5 min effort on BCBR Stage 4 I only got up to 168 bpm. Fatigue was clearly setting in as the week went along. During Cascade Classic I didn’t experience those same markers of fatigue. My average power on Stage 5 was the highest of any day, and my HR didn’t decline either, hitting 169 bpm both Stage 1 and 5. Note that coming into a World Cup, well rested, my HR will typically hit between 178-182 bpm.

Some of that fatigue was also surely accumulated in transfers each day. We started racing in a new location each morning during BCBR, which meant hours were spent driving, catching ferries, and finding food every afternoon and evening. It certainly added to the experience, but made recovery harder. During Cascade Classic, we slept in the same bed each night, and most of the starts were within a couple kilometers of the house. It meant we had a lot more time for afternoon naps, massage, and getting the calories back in.

 

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One thing I noticed day to day during Cascade Classic, was the challenge I had keeping my legspeed up at the end of the longer stages. Gaps seemed to open up when other riders simply picked up the speed by adjusting their cadence. As far as mountain bikers go, I tend to have a higher cadence, but that means averaging 75-80 rpm during events, not the 85-90 rpm I found myself averaging during the stages of Cascade Classic. The difference may look insignificant on paper, but during Stage 1 of Cascade Classic I was trying to respond to attacks at 98-105 RPM after 3 hours of racing, whereas during BCBR on Stage 3, I was responding to attacks at 80-85 rpm. It sure feels a lot different.

I don’t think there is anything “new” that we’ve learned here. Mountain Bike racing looks like its more intense, but typically done over shorter durations. Road racing might not have the same type of maximal exertions, but the amount of time in the saddle and the neural component to ones cadence can make otherwise relatively manageable efforts seem out of reach. There also
seems to be a very real effect that travel and transferring can make on ones ability to recovery from repeated hard days.

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