The Classics ~ Tour of Flanders

They are the races that define champions.  They require grit, determination, iron will and high wattages… for a long time.  All of the classics feature some defining type of terrain or environment that make the race even harder than normal.  Roubaix has the cobbles, Flanders has the steep hills that go up old farm paths, Milan-San Remo has the Poggio climbs after 6 hours of racing and even here in the states, Battenkill has gravel roads and narrow bridges, and Copperopolis has ridiculous globs of pavement packed on top of old pavement one shovel full at a time.  Cold weather, brutal crosswinds, dirt in your eyes, mud that coat your rims preventing any sort of predictable braking, massive wheel eating potholes and horrible so-called roads that contribute to the muscle pain which strikes fear in every racer. The intimate knowledge that the unpreventable, undeniable, unavoidable muscle twinge will turn into pedal debilitating cramps and end your race is the feeling that every classic rider fears.  The last sip in your water bottle, the sound of ‘pssssst’ of your tire going flat when a critical attack occurs at the front, the unexpected crosswind that has never occurred on this particular section of road before, the flat and gel-less back pockets in your jersey when all you need is just one more packet of miracle calories all define the experience.   When one by one your teammates fall by the wayside, from punctures, bonks, lack of watts, cramps and crashes and you alone are the last man left standing, it’s then that you want the confidence to know you have done your homework.  You have pushed through the rain and cold, you have gone farther on less water, you have done more morning rides without food than anyone out there, you have suffered more on the indoor trainer in the basement staring at the blank wall dreaming about this moment and finally the realization that all those movies you play in your head are now your reality.  These are the characteristics of the spring classics winners, the top finishers and in the races that define the man, it can make a career and at the very least make a season, but it can also crush the spirit of the hardest and toughest of the hard men over time.  Once cracked, the hard man endures over and over, but eventually those cracks form into gaps that can’t be closed and eventually turn into looks of consolation from faces of the fans on the side of the road that tell you that you aren’t getting back on and your day for winning is over.  This is a classic and just as they define the man that does battle in them, it is critical to define the physiological demands of those classics so I can tell you at the bare minimum what makes the difference between the winners and the losers in the classics.  What are the physical requirements of the winners and what are the demands of each race from a training perspective?   Are those demands similar in some way to other races?  If you know what is coming and how many hills you’ll have to do, can you use this knowledge to hyper focus your training?   Can you learn something about those races that give you an edge this spring in your own backyard classics?

The ridiculously complicated demands of a “classic” race need to be defined to understand the determining factors of success and by analyzing the power files from them, we can gain some insights to apply in our own training and races in the next couple of months, but know that smart training alone does not make a hard man…  

Let’s examine two files from racers in the classics last year, one file is George Hincapie’s fine 6th place finish in Tour of Flanders and another is a first place finish from a Masters 40+ racer in the Tour of Battenkill.  Both of these racers know what it takes from a physical and mental perspective and have won many races which contain all the elements needed to define the classics man. Let’s look at Tour of Flanders first as it is one of the most insanely difficult races in the world.  The first thing that is apparent from George’s power file is that the first two and half hours were pretty darn easy, so easy for George that he only averaged 64% of his threshold power, which is at the lower end of his endurance zone.  Of course, this was on purpose as well, since cycling is a sport of energy conservation and George as the protected leader of the BMC team on the day had only to ride in the peloton, stay out of the wind, and suck wheels as best as he could.   These two and half hours are an important fat burning zone for George to take advantage of and one characteristic of Pro Tour riders is their ability to burn fat at a relatively high intensity and for a longer time than other cyclists.   George’s body, with over 17 years of pro racing adaptations accumulated in it, has mastered this economical fuel strategy.   It’s one that you can master as well, without necessarily having to race your bike for 17 years at the Pro Tour level.  A simple thing you can do in training is to go out on your longer training rides before you eat breakfast.   Take plenty of food with you, including a good source of protein (Turkey & Cheese sandwich will do) and then at the hour and half mark start eating and continue on your workout.  Repeat this workout until you can get to two and half hours before eating or feeling hungry and then you’ll have begun the process of teaching your body to burn more fat as fuel.   It’s important that you don’t ride too intensely in those hours before eating, so keep your intensity in your endurance zone (56-75% of FTP).

With the first two and half hours out of the way, then next highlight of a classic is just the sheer energy required to complete it and finish well.  Flanders is a 6-hour race and in those 6 hours, George burned 6123 kiloJoules, which is roughly equivalent to 6700 kiloCalories and that is a lot of food!  It’s a lot of food to eat afterward in order to recover, but it also means he ate a ton of food on the bike during the race as well and that’s not just gels and bars as he needed to do have plenty of protein as well to balance his blood sugar.   The ability to shovel down mass quantities of food during a hard race is critical for a classics rider and digesting that food is also critical to keep the energy levels high, so make sure that you have a solid nutritional strategy for a hard race.  Foods you can eat quickly, packages that you can open with your teeth and sometimes hold in your teeth during an attack, along with something substantial that will ‘stick to your ribs’ and keep you going for an endurance effort that lasts longer than your normal 2–3-hour race. 

Besides the fact that George’s normalized power for the 6 hours+ was a superhuman 342 watts, what is unique about many classics is that the ‘make or break’ time usually is determined via some key characteristic of the course itself which requires an outlay of wattage that you must be prepared to create.   For the Tour of Flanders this begins after 4 hours of racing and when the peloton begins hitting the famed hills in the Flanders region and then George cracks out an hour at a normalized power of 404watts, so the ability to ride at your FTP, above it and just below it for quite a while is something you’ll want to plan for in your own classics races this spring.  The knowledge that you are going to have to kill it for a certain period of time and that is not going to win you the race, but if you don’t kill it, then you will for certain lose the race, is knowledge and a commitment that you must clearly understand and be ready for.  This effort puts you in a winning position but doesn’t win you the race and preparing for to do that is something you can train.   One workout that I would suggest is built around this philosophy and “pre-fatigues” you then requires you absolutely crush it for that ‘make or break’ time followed by just heinous effort in the final 45 minutes is below:

“The Powerful Classic”

20 minute warm-up

4 x 1 minute fast pedals.

Ride at your endurance/tempo (56-90% of FTP) for two hours making sure that you get in a hilly ride or if you live in a flat area, do a ton of little 20-30 second bursts simulating speed changes in fast and slower cadences. 

At the end of this two hours, then do 6 x 2 minutes- FLAT OUT- on a flatish road. WITH FULL recovery- so about 4 minutes at endurance pace.

Then do 6 x 30 seconds- with a hard SPRINT at the start- FULL recovery- about 3 minutes

Then cruise for 20minutes easy. Then do

6 x small ring sprints- 75m– Start from 10mph– 39:16, 39:17 only and wind it out- 135rpm+

6 x big ring sprints–250m-Start from 18mph- 53:16, 53;15, 53:14- Wind it out.

Now, ride at your Sweet Spot (88-93% of FTP) to the 10-12-15 minute hill for the serious work…

Kill it up, and riding on the edge of your limit (100-105% of FTP) up the hill – DO 5 repeats.

REST for 10 minutes between.

Ride at your endurance pace (56-75% of FTP) for 30 minutes and stop at a store for your favorite caffeinated energy go juice and some light food (preferably with a little protein in it).

Now, the work begins…..ride at your sweet-spot for the next 45 minutes, pacing yourself just over threshold on the climbs and digging a deeper and deeper hole in which to push yourself into at the end of the ride.  

Recovery shake and mass quantities of food after the ride is necessary.  Stretching is super important too.

While the Tour of Flanders isn’t a race that most of us will ever get to do, the lessons from this Uber Classic can be applied to our own backyard classics such as the Tour of the Battenkill.  This classic road race has everything that makes a classic, a “Classic” including the “classic experience”: same punishing gravel roads, tough weather conditions, leg burning steep hills all combined with tough, nasty, hard as nails riders. The ‘classic experience’ is so desired that the pre-registration sold out within a few hours and it has become one of the largest one day races in the USA, including eight separate fields of Category 4 racers!  Let’s examine two key features of this classic so that you can prepare for any race this spring.  In contrast to the Tour of Flanders in Europe, shorter classics in the US are built for us working stiffs and typically start with a quick pace and then speed up!   In our masters winning file, we see that the first 5 minutes or so are done at warm-up pace, but then the pace goes through the roof and culminates with a hard two minute hill done at maximum power.   The wattage in the first 30 minutes is stochastic or highly variable and contributes to the intensity of the event, as our masters’ rider averaging 327 watts normalized, while his average power is only 244, indicating that there is plenty of time resting and not pedaling followed by hard bursts (attacks) of high power.  The variable nature of the race is something that you will have to prepare for and the ability to change speeds is paramount in spring classics.   Changing your pedaling speed isn’t the only thing that is necessary to do, but it’s also key to be able to ride near your threshold power and then do multiple hard bursts of watts in your anaerobic capacity zone (121-150%) all the while recovering to your threshold.  So, in reality there are two things you need to train for: 1) rapid and seemingly random cadence changes and 2) pushing your cardiovascular system to its threshold and then demanding short bursts of power with high force on the pedals.

The ‘make or break’ point comes in every race and knowing where it occurs is knowledge that can be hard won and that point on the course can be the same place every year.  In the amateur Battenkill races, that point is near the finish as all of the pretenders have been eliminated and the winners begin to emerge from the front group.   In the final 20 minutes there is a tough climb that has a bit of stair step nature to it, but is generally uphill for six and half minutes and this is the location of the final battle.   The hammer goes down here with our masters’ rider attacking at the bottom with a vicious 420 watt+ effort for a minute and then riding at 108% of his threshold for next five and half minutes to escape the front runners and then solo to the line.   This “race winning” effort is something that I have seen over and over in hundreds of race winning files and you should incorporate it into your training program this month and throughout your training.   Here it is and plan on doing at least 5-8 of them in each session:

Each interval begins with a 30 second sprint(15second out of the saddle) with and you must average 200% of your Threshold wattage in these first 30seconds with a peak of at least 300% (If you are using a cyclo-computer, try to reach at least 28-30mph and hold for 30seconds). Then ride for 3minutes and really hammer at 100-110% of your Threshold wattage(or the best speed you think you could maintain for an hour), and then finish with an out-of- the-saddle 10 second burst after the three minutes is over and try to reach 200% of your threshold wattage again, or 28-30mph. Rest for 5-6minutes between each.

The classics are unique here and abroad and using our power meters and data collection devices, we can better understand just how freaking hard they are and whether or not we even want to train for these evil mothers.  Once the commitment is made though, you have some serious training to do and the great thing about that is that you get to ride your bike more!  So get out there and go for a training ride!

Hunter Allen is a is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach and former professional cyclist. He is the coauthor of “Triathlon Training With Power”, “Training and Racing with a Power Meter” and “Cutting-Edge Cycling,” co-developer of TrainingPeaks’ WKO software, and CEO and founder of Peaks Coaching Group. He and his coaches create custom training plans for all levels of athletes.