Race Report: Tour of Walla Walla 2016

The first of the Washington Stage Races, ToWW is a four event stage race over three days. Last year this was my first-ever Cat 3 race and it was an eye-opening experience into the fitness necessary to compete with the US field. My primary target was the Saturday Crit. Having finished top-10 last year I knew I could perform well in this race, and I had spent the last 12 months basically thinking about the winning strategy for this course. I’ll explain further below.

I’m starting with the exciting bit first, but please keep reading for some insight on the strategy, fitness and preparation I gleaned from the rest of the weekend races.

Saturday Stage 3: Walla Walla Crit

The downtown crit is a flat, technical course with six corners, including a tight Right-Left chicane and a final 180° turn into the short finishing straight. Last year the race was fast but not tactical, with only a few short-lived attacks and the pack sticking together to the end. The race was won before the final turn, with the first man going into the final 180° bend the first coming out of it, and the first to cross the line.

So my strategy was obvious; I needed to be first into the final turn. This was my first major goal for the season:

    • Performance Goal: Attack out of the chicane along the back straight
    • Outcome Goal: Be first into the final 180° turn
    • Result Goal: Be first across the line!

I was obviously more fit this year and far more experienced in Crit racing. I spent the race near the front and was able to leave the job of chasing surges to the guys in front of me. I kept the power smooth and low for the entirety of the race, averaging only 195 W for the hour!

The final few laps had plenty of guys launching half-hearted attacks, but the only one that looked threatening was an Audi rider with 1-to-go but the bunch reacted quickly and he never got much of a lead.

Final lap I was in about 3rd wheel and felt great. I was keeping my right side open to execute my plan when two guys jumped hard up the left side going into the corner before the chicane (remember, plan was chicane > sprint > 180° turn > sprint > finish line). I jumped and got on their wheel. The first quick video I was able to upload starts right at this moment.

We took the chicane fast and I came through on the right, in perfect position. I kicked into a 12-second sprint and got well out ahead. Max speed going into the final corner was 57 km/h. I came out of the corner with about a 20m gap, put in a final <10second sprint and crossed the line with a fist pump! Posted up while looking over my shoulder, just to make sure I had actually won and wasn’t sprinting for 1-lap-to-go (wouldn’t be the first time!).

Plan executed to perfection! I was almost happier to have my pre-race analysis proven correct! This was the final Cat 3 win I needed to get my upgrade to Cat 2, and the major checkbox for my entire season.

Lessons

The longer video below shows all the pretty numbers, and gives a sense of my tactics through the final few laps.

I was happy with my positioning in this race – there were never more than 5 or so guys in front of me throughout the video (and honestly for most of the race) and I kept my Right side clear. I wanted the Right side – the inside line on corners – open for a few reasons:

    1. I got the good advice last year that if something is going to happen in the corner, it’s going to cascade toward the outside, so stay safe on the inside.
    2. Inside line is obviously the shorter route to follow moves and eventually to make my planned attack – although I ended up attacking Left to follow a wheel. and
    3. Tight corners are more fun 🙂

Sitting out to the side for the whole race can be a really tiring tactic though, in a faster race with a lot of surges you’d be pushing harder against the wind and having to accelerate up to cover each attack. But for this race the average power was consistent enough to cheat a bit in favour of guarding my open side.

The only real acceleration I had to make was to follow the big red Audi rider’s attack (at 3:30), otherwise I was able to stay sat in the saddle and spin up whenever the pace increased, letting 2-3 guys come past me and just catching their draft.

Lesson: if you know you can cover something, it gives you the option to let someone else burn energy to cover it first.

In the end, I didn’t like my position as 2nd wheel behind the big guy in blue (4:35). I would have liked to be around 5th with my inside open. Big Blue was soft-pedaling and the slow pace was just inviting attacks. If no one had made a move I would have been forced to execute my planned attack from the front, which is never a good idea. It was actually a good thing that those two guys attacked from behind; they got the initial gap, I was sitting on a hair trigger waiting for it and was able to latch on before the rest of the group reacted.

Lesson: Don’t attack from the front; everyone is looking forward and can react immediately when you go. You’ll just end up dragging the rest of the peloton along behind you. Try to attack from 4-5 places down to get the jump on the guys up front.

The two attackers basically did the hard work to accelerate us up, while the corners prevented anyone else from immediately swamping us. Then before the rest of the group could cleanly exit the chicane and mob us I threw down my own attack and got off the front for the final 180° turn.

Through the final 180° turn I already didn’t hear anything behind me so I was fairly confident that I had a gap. I took the luxury of a quick shoulder check to confirm before getting out of the saddle for the short sprint to the finish!

Friday Stage 1: Morning: Wilson Hollow Time Trial

An out-and-back uphill/downhill course, 5.9km uphill, 4.9km down for a total 10.8km round-trip with just over 100m of elevation gain. The road surface was rough chipseal, barely smoother than loosepacked gravel. The weather was warm and sunny, but a wicked breeze was driving a head/crosswind against the uphill segment.

The day would be won by TT bikes, of course, so me on my aero road Giant Propel didn’t stand a chance of seeing the top of the results page, but I was aiming for a solid mid-pack finish and bettering my time from last year. I explored using BestBikeSplit, a tool by TrainingPeaks for optimizing pacing strategy based on individual factors and course & weather conditions.

I asked it what would get me a 16 minute time and it spit out a pacing strategy of pushing hard on the uphills and pulling back a bit to rest on the flatter sections.

Waitsburg TT

It was an achievable plan, but the wind conditions, the road surface and just my own fitness and motivation weren’t quite optimal. Even still it was valuable to know I could push hard uphill and get a bit of rest where it leveled out.

I ended up improving my time from last year and finishing mid-pack, despite not quite hitting my power targets.

 

Friday Stage 2: Afternoon: Waitsburg Road Race

The Cat 3 race covered two laps of the RR course for 70km and 900m elevation gain, including the first neutralized climb to the start/finish line. The finishing climb is a steady 3km at 6%, rising 160m. Very similar to one of our local popular segments, Cypress First Lookout. Based on the times from last year I knew I needed to climb at above 1100 VAM, or at least avg 350 W for the ~8 minute climb to stick with the pack. I practiced a couple repeats up First Lookout at 10min @ 340W successfully the week before the race, so I hoped to be able to stick with the pack full of strong climbers.

Last year the race was decided on the final climb; I was dropped on the first non-neutral climb but was able to catch back on on the descent before getting dropped again on the final climb 🙂 This year I planned on sitting at the back of the pack and doing no work, conserving energy for the two 8-minute efforts. No one would be silly enough to attack with that hill waiting to destroy any tired legs.

That didn’t quite go according to plan; After the neutral climb I was near the front on the descent. I pulled through and got down on my aero bars for a 30-second pull. I glanced back and for some reason the rest of the pack had fallen at least 200m off my wheel!

Ok, I figured they’d pull me back in. I continued to soft-pedal the descent staying aero. Another 30-seconds and I looked back again to find I had about a 500m gap….

*sigh* well, this is my life now..

Waitsburg RR

Long story short, I spent 25 minutes solo and unwilling off the front, with the pack somewhere out of sight behind me… With the climb upcoming, I began soft-pedalling and trying to rest before getting caught near the base of the climb. Even with the rest I was promptly dropped half-way up and spent the next downhill section chasing back on, just like last year.

Just before the final climb I threw in a token attack to try and scare the pack, but I was reeled back quickly and sat up as soon as we hit the final climb to try save my legs for the Crit the following day.

 

Sunday Stage 4: Kellogg Hollow Road Race