sábado, 28 de junio de 2014

Quebrantahuesos 2014, what went wrong (and what went well)

My objective for this year's Quebrantahuesos was to improve my last year's time, 6:44:56. Since I finished this year in 6:48:21, 3 minutes and 25 seconds more than last year, it is clear that I missed my target. In this post I'm going to try to determine what went wrong this year.

It is not my intention to use this post to justify myself for a disappointing result, I'll try also to determine what went well this year. At the end of the day, the point of this post is to help me to decide the changes I need to make to make sure I don't miss my objective again next year (oh yes, if I get a place in the ballot I'll be there again next year).

To avoid the [strong] temptation of pointing out first all the things I think I have done right and then all the injustices in the universe that conspired to make me fail, I'm going to cover the topics in chronological order. This post is going to be rather long, if you are not that interested in all the details, and believe me, I can understand it, feel free to jump to the button of the post where you'll find a paragraph with my conclusions or even feel free to stop reading just now and use your time to something more productive. 

The preparation
This is the period from the first day of the year to the 1st of June, the first five months of the year.

I would say this went quite well. I built my form month after month and, at the same time, I was losing weight consistently.

By 31st of May I had ridden more hours than last year, about 12% more kilometers. I weighted 2 kg less than last year and my CTL was way higher (93.2 vs 68.2).

In June 2nd I answered a fellow wheeler about my objective for the Quebrantahuesos with "Aiming to ride it in less than 6:30 but just improving last year's 6:44 we'll make me happy." I was feeling optimistic.

The new bicycle
The plan was to receive the new bicycle by May 15th. That would give me enough time to book a bike fit and start riding it from May 19th, a month before the Quebrantahuesos. Plenty of time to get use to it.

Unfortunately a mistake (50% Canyon's, 50% my mistake) meant I received a bicycle a size too big so I had to return it and wait for the new one. That meant I received the new one June 6th and, due to multiple reasons, I had no time to get a bike fit before the Quebrantahuesos.

The question was, should I ride the new bicycle, which is "better" and 2kg lighter, or should I ride the, not that good but really fit to me, Cannondale?

In June 8th I rode the Ditching Devil 200 and it was the first ride I did with the Canyon. The feeling with the new bicycle was so good that I had no doubt. I was going to ride the Canyon at the Quebrantahuesos.

The tapering
After the Ditching Devil, exactly two weeks before the Quebrantahuesos, I sort of declared myself in the form of my life.

Just to give an example. At the Ditching Devil, with 170km in the legs, I had set a PR climbing the strava segment  Combe Bottom Climb Hell. That climb was 24 seconds faster (from 4:54 to 4:30) and I put 10% more power (from 293w to 324w) than my previous PR and that was a few weeks after the LEL, my lasts year's top form.

The problem with the tapering was the traveling. The Monday after the Ditching Devil, two weeks before the Quebrantahuesos, I had to flight to San Francisco and I would fly back on Friday, and then, the next Monday, the Monday in the Quebrantahuesos' week, I had to fly to Barcelona were I had to work Tuesday and Wednesday.

I thought a lot how to approach those two weeks. I was at 98.6 CTL and -26.5 TSB after the Ditchig Devil. I still managed to ride three laps at Richmond Park before my flight on Monday so I decided not to ride in the US. I though I was better off just trying to manage jet lag properly and to try to rest on those days than trying to squeeze a ride at hours that would feel weird to my body.

I landed in London on Saturday and joined a club run on Sunday. It was a disaster. I was last in every single climb, legs felt empty and numbers were terrible. I blamed the jet lag.

To make things worst the two kilograms that I have lost in the first half of the year were back on my body. I was going to ride the Quebrantahuesos at the same weight as last year after all.

Luckily got time to go for another ride at Richmond Park on Monday before flying to Barcelona. Two laps at a decent pace but the third one had to take it easy because I felt really tired.

In Barcelona I was fairly busy but the worry of not riding that much made me consider the option of squeezing a ride on Wednesday. I finally discarded the idea, it was going to be only a two hours ride. Mounting and dismounting the bicycle seemed like a lot of work and a bikeshop asked me 40€ for a 24hours bike rent. I gave it a pass.

The wheelers at the entry of the exposition

The days before the Quebrantahuesos
These were two perfect days. On Thursday I picked up TY and Richard at Barcelona's airport and we drove up to Sabiñánigo where we met Rafa.

Friday we went for a 42km easy ride. In the las kilometer of Hoz de Jaca's climb I pushed it a bit and legs responded brilliantly.
The views before Hoz de Jaca's climb
TY, myself and Richard near the top of Hoz de Jaca
A siesta in the afternoon, an early dinner and going to bed early meant I was rested for the D day despite a 5am wake up call.
Yes, I was taking all those gels and energy bars with me. Around 60g per hour of carbohydrates
The ride
I have divided the whole route in 14 segments. Yes, I know, it is a bit geek, but that is the best way to understand where the time went.

From the start to Canfranc village (2013, 2014)
These are very fast 34km. The main worry is to make sure your are not involved in a crash and you are sitting in a group that is riding fast and safely.

This year I rode this section in 53:15, 3:15 faster than last year.

There is not much you can do to improve your time in this segment, it all pretty much depends on the group you find.

Somport's climb (From Canfranc village to the French frontier) (2013,2014)
12km climb at 5% average.

This is the first climb of the route. And this is typically where I forget about following anyones wheel and concentrate in my own pace.

I felt great in this climb and, as always, tried to pace myself. The climb took me 38:25, 2:01 faster than last year, and I averaged 238watts well into my sustainable effort.

Somport descend (2013, 2014)

The first surprise of the day. In all my previous four participations this side of the mountain was always cold. Not this year. Temperature averaged 16.2ºC this year and last year it was 7ººC

The Canyon feels more secure than the Cannondale and while I was descending I knew I was going faster (despite being a terrible descender). In fact numbers come to confirm the feeling. I did this descend in 8:56, 46 seconds faster than last year.

Descend to Escot (2013, 2014)

In this part all I always do is to wait for a group to be formed and hide in the middle. I always take this opportunity to eat, drink and get some rest.

This year the group I was in was very bit, about two hundred riders at least. There is not much you can do to improve your time in this section. The descend is not technical and there is no point of trying to make such big group to go faster.

This is a very fast descend but it took me 42:17 to ride it this year, 6 seconds more than last year.

Le Marie-Blanque (2013, 2014)

Le Marie-Blanque is a 1st cat climb that is a bit tricky. It is 10km at an average of 7% but when you look the profile in detail you realize the first part of the climb is very very easy but the last 4km are quite hard as they average more than 11%.

You also have to factor the weather conditions at Le Marie-Blanque. Hidden in a deep valley, the atmosphere feels particularly hot and humid. Specially this year. Average temperature was 21.7ºC while last year it was 14.7ºC. 7ºC hotter this year!!! It was a sauna.

If in last year's report I wrote Le Marie-Blanque is not that hard, this year it felt hard. I was sweeting a lot and climbing with all in (that is a 34/28). My pace was not that bad compared with the riders around me, I was passing a lot of riders, but this year it felt hard, I was at my limit.

The numbers say it took me 41:12 to climb Le Marie-Blanque, that is 37 seconds less than last year. I had put an average of 245watts in the climb.

Le Marie-Blanque descend (2013, 2014)
I love this descend. At the beginning it is not really a descend but a flat that forces you to keep pedaling and putting power, but when you pass the feed station and the road looks to the valley at the other side the view is magnificent (although I don't spend that much time admiring it).

Again the feeling that the Canyon was allowing me to descend faster is confirmed by the numbers. It took me exactly 15 minutes to descend Le Marie-Blanque, 37 seconds less than last year.

Up to this point I was improving my time in pretty much each segment. At this point I was 6:33 ahead of last year's ride.

I don't ride with an eye on the clock to see if I'll meet my objective, I prefer to ride at my best and see were that is. This means that during the ride I was not aware that I was 6:33 ahead of my objective. Still I had the feeling that I was doing well and I could finish in less than 6 hours 30.

Flat before Portalet (2013, 2014)
It is not really all flat but you barely notice the climb. Again in this section my strategy is to join a group and take the opportunity to eat, drink and get some rest.

At some point I remember thinking the group was not riding that fast. Still not even for a second I considered the option of moving to the front to do some work. The way I saw it was: I don't mind if they are riding a bit slower than last year, I'll take the time to rest.

Now the numbers confirm that feeling. It took me 18:41 to complete this segment, and that is 1:58 longer than last year. I lost almost 2 minutes in 10 kilometers!!!!! This time was even one second worst than my time in 2012 when I finished in 7:02:40.

As said while I ride I don't check times in the segments so at that time I was not aware of the amount of time I had lost. I knew we were being slower than in 2013 but I was not expecting to be that much slower.Not that I think there is anything I should have done do about it. In my opinion how fast you ride in the three "flat" segments (pre-Somport, pre-Marie-Blanque and re-portalet) depends on how fast the group your are in rides; gaining or losing time is all about the climbs, specially the Portalet.

Portalet's first half (2013, 2014)

At this point I felt tired. I think I always have this feeling in this section. This year I thought it was because I was following a wheel that was taking me to my limit. I remember feeling happy for this because I thought I was improving my time from last year.

If you had put a gun in my head I would have bet my life on definitively I'm riding faster this segment than last year.

But the number say otherwise. It took me 1:01:47 to ride this segment (188 average watts). 3:11 more than last year. This is a surprise for me, I wasn't expecting such terrible time in this segment.

It is true that I had to stop twice in this segment. The first time at feed station that is half way through the segment to fill my bottles and to make a quick pee. The second time was at the feed station at the end of the segment to, again, fill my bottle with water (I had drank a full bottle in just 8km). But I only was stopped 2:50 and last year I also stopped at the feed station at the end of the segment.

It is now clear that I was not riding as fast as I thought and if it was feeling hard it was not because the wheel I was following was fast but because I was already tired.

Portalet's second half (2013, 2014)

Last year I road this segment on my own, passing riders as I had found my pace and strength. This year though we had head wind so I hide behind a small group of riders that were climbing at what felt a challenging pace.

It was so challenging that I was playing games with my brain all the time. "One kilometer, hold them for one kilometer and then you can let them go". The kilometer would past and I would challenge myself again for another kilometer. I did that for 8 kilometers, when we were 2 kilometers from the top I knew I was going to be able to hold their wheel for the whole climb.

I was still feeling optimistic about my time. My first estimation was we would reach the top at 5 hours 30 within the ride and we ended up getting there at 5 hours 23. Somehow I thought it would be possible to ride the the 40km to the finish in less than an hour and seven minutes and finish below 6:30.

Looking at the numbers now I see I have invested 44:12 in climbing this segment (187 avg. wats) which is 3:52 more than last year.

In total it took me 6:29 more to climb the Portalet this year part of it was due to harder conditions this year. We not only had head wind in the second half of the climb but also this year was 7.8ºC hotter on average (28 vs 20.2).

Portalet's descend (2013, 2014)
I love this descend. Close roads, great visibility and not technical. There is no excuse to not descend as fast as the bicycle can go.

I couldn't tell any difference with last year's descend but when I looked at the times I found that it took me 18:58 to ride this descend, that is 2:04 more than last year.

The explanation has to be the head wind. At the time I didn't notice it but a report in a Spanish magazine confirms there was head wind in that descend.

Again, still at this point I was thinking I had a chance to finish in less than 6:30. What a fool!

The flat before Hoz de Jaca (2013, 2014)
This is just 5.5km before the last climb in the route. I rode it as part of the group that climbed together the second half of Portalet, I even sometimes lead the way for them.

This segment took me 10:22 which is 24 seconds faster than last year.Legs were feeling great and I was looking forward to attack Hoz de Jaca.

Hoz de Jaca (2013, 2014)

I suddenly felt a funny feeling in one of my right leg's muscles, the vastus medialis according to the picture below.

At that time I didn't relate it but trying to find the muscle that was feeling funny I recalled that exactly the same feeling, in the same muscle, I had the third time I rode a road bike in my live, a 164km sportive on a hired road bike, when I was climbing the last climb, La Covatilla, in its 12% ramps (report, in Spanish), the only time I said out loud "I quit cycling". It's been 776 times I have ridden a road bike since them until I had the same feeling.

It was not painful but it felt like the signal that it could be very painful. Funny enough I applied the same recipe I applied back then. Stand on the bicycle and pedal slowly for a few seconds.

It worked. The group I was riding with was now out of my sight and I climbing trying not to force the right leg, but I was doing well. Passing a lot of riders still had time to get a plastic glass of coke that a spectator offered me and drink it while I was climbing.

It took me 11:50 to get to the top (220 avg watts) which is 8 seconds more than last year. Not bad considering I had to easy a bit.

Hoz de Jaca's descend (2013, 2014)
At the top of Hoz de Jaca there is a feed station. A volunteer was offering bottles of water. I grabbed one on the go and drank it before the descend really started.

This is a tricky descend, it has two complicated bends at the very beginning, a tunnel when it gets flat and a short but noticeable climb at the end, you better be in the small chainring for it.

The Canyon proved again to be a safer bike to ride in descends as I did it in 4:55, 21 seconds faster than last year.

The flat to Sabiñanigo (2013, 2014)

This segment was different this year. Instead the 24 all descend or flat kilometers we had in 2013

The flat to Sabiñánigo 2013
In 2014 we had a small climb towards the end of the segment
The flat to Sabiñánigo 2014
At the beginning of this segment I realized I was not going to be able to finish in less than 6:30. 

It didn't matter. I took turns with two other riders leading a group of about 40 all the way to Sabiñánigo. To be completely honest I have to confess the other two were taking more turns than me but I was working as hard as I was able to.

Half way through the segment I realized that I could miss my objective.

When we turn right and I saw the "climb" we had in front of us I knew it was over. 

It was not a hard climb, in any other ride I wouldn't even mention it. It didn't hurt me that bad either. I managed to keep up with all the riders that were sitting in our wheel as they passed us in the climb. At the top of the hill I got again to the front of the group and lead it to the descend. I knew it was over and I was furious.

This segment took me 38:40 and that is 1:49 more than last year.

When I crossed the line I saw 6:50 something in the watch so I thought I had done 6 or 7 minutes worst than last year. Then, when I saw my oficial time I saw it was "only" 3:25, I had to consider the time it took me to cross the start line.

Not that made me any happier in ay case.

Rafa, Edu, TY, Javier and Richard with our medal and certificates

Conclusion, why I missed my objective for this year's Quebrantahuesos
A bad tapering after my best form ever meant I put on the weight I had lost in the first half of the year and I didn't have the endurace to do well at the Portalet which, the traditions says, is the judge of the Quebrantahuesos. 

Weather conditions were tougher this year, on average temperature was 7.8ºC hotter. That means Le Marie-Blanque was a sauna and Portalet was really challenging, more considering we had head wind in the second half. 

Head wind in the descend of the Portalet, a slow group in the flat before the Portalet and a "climb" introduced in the last segment of the route were other factors out of my control that made me slower this year.

What makes the result a bit more disappointed is how well the bike performed. It not only is 2kg lighter but descending with it felt way more secure than with the Cannondale (I gained time pretty much in each descend).

The only thing that mitigates the disaster is my position in the final ranking. Last year, finishing in 6:44:56 I was in position 1100. This year, finishing in 6:48:21 I was in position 884. Despite of taking 3:25 more to finish I have moved 216 positions up, which, I guess, confirms general conditions were harder for everyone and is aligned with a Spanish magazine that reported:

"Many of the participants suffered from the overwhelming and uncomfortable feeling reigning at Le Marie-Blanque where heat and humidity added an extra point of suffering to the already hard course of QH. To this circumstance it was added the head wind that appeared at the ascend and specially in the descend of the Portalet what has caused that many of the participants qualified the twenty-fourth edition as one of the toughest in the last decade"

A bit of an overstatement in my opinion (2010 conditions were toughest) but still slightly comforting.

What about next year?
Here is the thing. I'm still convinced that in "normal" circumstances I would have finished in less than 6:30 this year. So my target for next year can't be that one. Instead I'm going to target Ed's time 6:18:29, to my knowledge the best Kingston Wheeler time.

A stretch goal would be targeting the 6:13:03 that took Miguel Indurain to finish this year's Quebrantahuesos. Being able to say "I rode faster than Indurain" is quite a thing but he is 49 so I'll have to wait four years to make that a fair assertion.

In any case I want, sometime, to be able to finish the Quebrantahuesos in less than 6 hours. Lots of pedals to turn until then.

I leave you a few videos that reflect the atmosphere at the Quebrantahuesos this year.

Take care
Javier Arias González