The power of recovery: What it takes to win The Transcontinental Race.
Last year I did a post on what it takes to finish The Transcontinental Race. This year, I am lucky enough to write about what it takes to win. Whether you’re a dot watcher or a fellow racer, I hope you enjoyed it. I really had a great time; I just love to race my bike, full out.
Finding my limit: TCRNo4 (2016) was tougher than TCRNo5 (2017)
Putting to one side the 36 hours of enforced rest that I had in 2016, due to my allergic asthma, last year I went a lot deeper. I slept less and suffered more physical degradation.
The difference? Racing in 2015 and 2016 allowed me to find my limit, which was the greatest possible effort that I could do. In ultra endurance racing, that limit doesn’t last a few seconds or even minutes. It can last for hours. Finding it involved severe suffering. That experience gave me the skills to be more efficient and successful. In 2017 I looked after myself well. This year I rested, sleeping mostly in hotel beds. Having a shower. Having breakfast. I recovered.
Two things I have learnt about my limit:
- It’s not a fixed point. It has changed. Each year I’ve moved forward a bit, allowing me to go deeper and faster.
- I must never exceed my limit. As soon as I put a pedal stroke over that line, my racing becomes unsustainable and things go wrong. I must stay on the safe side.
My limit is the most brutal place I ever go and the pain is continuous. My limit is a place that needs more mental than physical strength to withstand the desire to quit. I know my body can tolerate the suffering and keep me going.
Getting ready to race
With all of that in mind, I’ve found looking at the 2017 stats to be interesting. As I did last year, I’ll break it down into days. They’re not comparable, they’re when I stopped and started, depending on conditions. My analysis will look at facts, with some racing context.
For reference, I think my threshold was around 350-360W at the start, though I didn’t test it. About the same as 2016. However, just a couple of weeks before the race, while in the final week of my training camp in Italy I did 340W for 40min at 2000m altitude. I was already tired and I was pretty lean (around 73kg, though I don’t bother to weigh myself). I also had a significant advantage because I had been working with Ric Stern at RST Coaching all year.
I’ll give a little mention of ‘Chronic Training Load’ (CTL), which I’ve decided is not that relevant for me. I know how I feel at certain CTL numbers so I can translate that. However, the model doesn’t work well with ultra endurance cycling because there are so many other environmental factors, so comparing numbers is misleading. Let’s just say that I wanted to start the race fresh. I wanted to feel like a kid the night before Christmas, eager to just get on my bicycle and race.
Day 1: Belgium, France, Germany
The first day is always a big one and starts at 10pm. My plan was to push on, riding through to Checkpoint 1 without a stop, a distance of 625km. However, I did stop to sleep because I got a puncture and it irritated me. I also felt a bit tired so I changed my plan and I pulled into an ‘Audax hotel’ (=bus stop) and slept for 1h30, just what I needed. It kept me strong.
Into the first full day on Sunday and things started well until the afternoon when I started to have some asthma issues. If you’re interested, I’ve written a separate post about my allergic asthma and what it’s like to deal with.
Then I found out about Frank Simons’ passing. It wasn’t a good day, either physically or mentally so I decided to stop and have a long sleep when I got to the hotel at Checkpoint 1, Schloss Lichtenstein. I wanted to allow my breathing to settle and my mind to calm.
The mental impact of what happened on Day 1 is something I do want to talk more about, in the right time and place.
I ‘earnt’ 725 TSS, this is around what most active recreational cyclists would earn in a week.
I burnt 13,537 calories. A large pizza (14”/35cm) is around 2,300 calories, so that’s a six stack.
Although my power may look good, for me it was a bit low, which was due to my breathing issues which meant I couldn’t pedal strongly in the afternoon. These issues meant I was also lacking in motivation. Elevation: 5,356m, this was the highest figure in the race, for just over a 24h period. With no real climbs, it shows just rolling the terrain was; up, down and up again, all day.
Day 2: Germany, Austria, Italy
The effects of this first real night of recovery turned out to be important.
I woke feeling good, I’d slept well, my breathing had settled and my mind was clear. It turned out that this would be the end of my breathing difficulties until I finished the race in Greece.
My motivation was back as well. I’d worked all year for this and I wasn’t ready to give up cycling yet, I’d race on.
Today was a short day because when I went over the Brenner Pass into Italy, it was raining hard. As I began to descend it became torrential, with thunder and lightning, a real summer mountain storm. Both on safety grounds and to look after my body I stopped early at 8pm, finding a hotel for a good long sleep where I was pleased to find that top Canadian ultra racer, Geoffroy Dussault was already there.
Incidentally, when I looked at Geoffroy’s final figures, I was really amazed. His average speed was 28 kph while mine was 25.7 kph. He also rode 15 hours less than I did. He finished 4th. Luckily for me, he likes his sleep. Unluckily for him, he had a crash and wheel problems.
By far my shortest day in the race, and possibly in any of my three TCRs, only 12h 42m pedalling.
I delivered a consistent average speed and did some reasonable climbing.
Still, there was a reasonable 3,352m of climbing in the near 13hours, so it was a hilly day which included two classic Austrian climbs, the Fern (1,200m) and Brenner (1,370m) Passes.
Day 3: Italy, Slovenia
A really good day, built on a foundation of 5 hours sleep, from 10pm to 3am. I set off at the same time as Geoffroy. He flew off down the road, as he does, while I plodded along at my steady pace.
Even with all the rest time I had taken on the first two nights, I still arrived 4th at Checkpoint 2, Monte Grappa. I was looking after myself and felt very rested but still near the front of the race, a good sign. I then pushed across Italy and on into Slovenia, riding until 1am, a good day indeed.
Before stopping for sleep in another hotel, I crossed a 1000m climb in Slovenia. It was the last ‘decent’ climb for a while and I had decided it would be better to get it done before sleeping than after. It helped that I was feeling good and the weather was fine. There was no need to stop earlier and then face the climb the next morning with stiff legs.
Riding time: 18 hours. It’s not possible to ride much more in an unsupported race, so this is a solid day.
Max temperature: 38 degrees Celsius, which peaked was while I was climbing Monte Grappa! The maximum for this Tuesday was up 8 degrees when compared with Day 1. The heatwave that was dubbed ‘Lucifer’ by the press across Europe was beginning to take a grip.
Cadence: At 84rpm, this number is lower than normal, due to the long and gruelling 10% climb of Monte Grappa.
Although the day was hotter, with more climbing and 150km longer than Day 2, my average speed was consistent.
I lost 1h30 minutes today because I had 2 punctures and needed to find and buy more innertubes.
Day 4: Slovenia, Hungary, Slovakia
Crossing the flatlands of South-Central Europe, thankfully the climbs were done for a while. Today was about getting into and through Hungary.
I was a little tired because yesterday had been hard. I felt there was no point pushing on across this flat country so I just made steady progress.
I stopped early, around 11pm and at a 5* hotel, just over the border in Slovakia. I needed a good rest and this was the place, no point pushing into the early hours for little reward.
I was starting to love the recovery.
Ride time: 16h, shorter than previous two days due to starting later (05.10am) and finishing earlier. I was still riding all day and made a decent distance.
Power: I was tired today, so average power was easily the lowest so far at 123W. Speed was good because I was on the flat.
Temperature: 39 degrees C, Lucifer is coming closer.
Average Speed: 27.4kph. Even feeling tired, this was good for a long day and above average though there was still nearly 2,000m climbing.
Day 5: Slovakia
I’d just slept in Slovakia so was in the country of Checkpoint 3, High Tatras. I was also racing in 2nd place, not far behind Björn Lenhard. The story of the race is for another time, but I was happy with my progress so far and comfortable with my position. I’d routed over the Lower Tatras mountains, the gradient was steady and the descent very fast. I arrived at Checkpoint 3 in the early evening, then pushed on and passed Björn soon after. I rode until around 1:30am.
Due to starting early and finishing late, Day 5 was one of one of real progress.
Max Speed: 76kph, quite quick and my fastest in the race so far.
Temperature easing a little to 36 degrees C maximum. Lucifer was softening me up for Day 6.
Average speed: The slowest (and longest) racing day since the dash from Belgium into Checkpoint 1. However, there was some reasonable climbing including the highest point in the race so far at 1,708m.
Elevation: 5,072m the second biggest day of climbing; up and yet more up!
Day 6: Slovakia, Romania
Starting in Slovakia after another decent hotel rest, I ended a long, incredible and unforgettable day deep into Romania.
Today was the day that Lucifer really hit and the heat was beyond serious. It was a record breaking 51 degrees C. The hottest day in the region for over 10 years and certainly the most extreme temperature I had personally experienced. What could I do but simply keep pedalling? So, that’s what I did.
It was also the first day that I was in the lead. I was actually leading the Transcontinental for the first time since 2015 when my race came apart with the ultra-cyclist’s dread problem, Shermer’s neck.
I decided there was no time to mess about now, any luxuries of sitting down to eat food were gone, the race was on. Of course, ultra cycling doesn’t work out as you expect.
I rode down the E80 in Romania and it stressed me out so much I stopped at the first hotel I found after the road, I didn’t care about the race, I just needed a break mentally.
I’ve written a separate post about this frightening experience. It’s not for the faint-hearted and it can be found on my website.
Max temperature: 51 degrees Celsius! Lucifer was upon me.
Power: 113W, suffering from fatigue and heat, a tough day and it shows.
Average speed still very respectable.
Ride time: 17 hours, a good day in tough conditions.
Day 7: Romania
Today I started riding early and as the sun rose I was pushing east to the Transfăgărășan Highway. I arrived at the start of the climb by mid-morning and stopped to refuel, essential before a long climb, eating and drinking all I could. The climb itself was straightforward, if a little dull. It was a bit disappointing really as I’d built it up in my mind to be way better.
I was first to arrive at Checkpoint 4, the Transfăgărășan Highway, around midday. Food choice wasn’t good again, so several mouthfuls of Haribo, a litre of milk and some cola and I was again gone. The descent was long and brutal, rolling with nasty ascents included and into a headwind. I stopped at a hotel near Craiova that night, it was to be my last real stop.
Power: Down to an average of 119 Watts, definitely feeling the combination of fatigue and poor food choices. Looking at this figure over the seven days so far tells the story of the accumulated physical effect of such long days: 166, 159, 154, 123, 130, 113, 119. Looking forward, this dropped even further on the final two days which would both average 109.
Average speed is accordingly really plummeting, down to 22.7kmph. I couldn’t ride this slow normally if I tried to. By now it’s just about keeping pedalling.
Day 8: Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia
848km to the finish, so time to open the sprint up!
I awoke and felt decent, not too stiff, not too sore and I knew that my legs would begin working shortly. The morning involved three countries as I passed from Romania, into Bulgaria and then into Serbia. I was so lucky to cross the Danube as the sun rose. It was a beautiful experience. As the day wore on the heat of Serbia was sweltering.
I was leading, I had a good gap and it was my time. This was Mike’s race, and I was thinking a lot about him. I was here to win and I realised that I should do something to honour both his race and him. What better way than to do as he would. I decided to try and ride straight through to the finish.
Shortly before nightfall I began the climb into Macedonia. The gradient was steep, even a bit too steep. However, thankfully the climb was not so long.
Upon passing the little border crossing, the road turned to what can only be described as rocks glued onto more rocks. Take the worst Paris – Roubaix pave that you can imagine and you’ll be close. Then imagine 10km of this, absolutely tortuous. The only way to ride was as if it were pave, hands on the tops and just power a big gear at 60rpm, pressing hard.
My lowest average cadence of the race, 81.
Compare this average with 90rpm for the first day. This shows another effect of the growing fatigue and my average speed stays low at 23kph.
Day 9: Macedonia, Greece
I was pedalling up a small hill, at night, somewhere in Macedonia. I was feeling tired and pedalling very slowly, my brain was hazy. I needed some rest so I took an hour off the bike. I awoke feeling refreshed and pushed on again.
This day was hard. Hard like only some will ever know. My body was beginning to shut down, my energy stores were at minimal. My legs turned over the pedals and pushed me forward, only as a mere courtesy rather than a real effort. Today was to be a slow slog to the finish.
The day wore on and so did my patience. I just willed it to be over, I was knackered; physically and mentally from the onslaught of 8 days racing and nearly 48 hours straight out.
The last parcours was both hideous and beautiful, not only did you need to do a final climb but you had to do 3 other climbs to get there. Oh, Mike was trying to break us. Forgiveness was easy, as the roads and the views were incredible, and I passed through the region as dusk turned to night, the wispy haze across the rolling hills and the sun setting gave me compensation for the toil.
I’ve no shame to say it was emotional as I climbed these final hills; stress, joy and sheer sadness overcame me and I shed a few tears. It’s not a frequent occurrence for me and I think the last time was 10 years ago as my dad passed.
To finish, to win, and to do so this year to honour Mike, his race and the people that had come together to put it on meant everything to me.
Average power was down to 109 Watts, I was nailed. It was just a case of keeping the legs spinning at any effort manageable.
The statistics show yet another hot day but don’t show the wind. Greece was quite flat for most of the afternoon and I had to ride into a headwind.
Only 1h sleep in the past 48 hours, since leaving Craiova, Romania.
2017 vs 2016
Speed versus Time for all 9 days, this graph (Trackleaders.com) really demonstrates consistency; also portraying the tough last 48 hours.
Image 1. Track leaders speed vs time, Transcontinental 2017
I began this piece by stating that for me the race in 2017 was ‘easier’ than 2016. Clearly 2017 was not really easy by any means, however I was better prepared, fitter and stronger on the start line. A big part of this was having professional coaching.
I also raced smarter, I slept more, and consistently.
In 2016 I was on the back foot almost from the beginning, stopping during the first night then having to rest and recover from illness at CP1, where I lost 36 hours. Subsequently I felt forced to sleep less to make this up.
In 2017 I was on the front foot, racing my planned race, resting as my body needed and keeping step with the race lead, making my move when I was ready.
Image 2. Track leaders speed vs time, Transcontinental 2016
These two graphs show the complete difference in my races when comparing 2016 with 2017. Image 1 shows consistent sleep each night, with longer sleeps the first 2 nights. Image 2 shows the long 36-hour rest, with a short fast day across France and another long rest followed by almost 3 days straight riding (with just 1h 30 sleeping) to play catch up. This took its toll and was brutal physically.
Full analysis for 2016 can be found here. http://jamesmarkhayden.uk/transcontinental/the-power-of-fatigue-racing-transcontinental/
 Fitness (CTL) is an exponentially weighted average of your last 42 days of training stress scores (TSS) and reflects the training you have done over roughly the last 3 months.
 Training Stress Score, a composite number that considers both intensity and duration. It’s not about how far or how long. The harder you work, the higher the score.