Chris Carmichael Blog: Lessons You Can Learn from Watching the Spring Classics

I look forward to the Spring Classics every year, even more so because I’m getting further and further away from the timeframe when I was racing them. I recently stumbled upon an interview with one of the racers who was an inspiration to me when I was aspiring to a racing career in Europe: Barry Hoban. (Check it out here.) Some of you may not know the name, and that’s because he raced in the same era as Eddy Merckx, Roger De Vlaeminck, and other giants of the 1960s-70s pro peloton. Hoban got his share of wins, though, including Ghent-Wevelgem and 8 stages of the Tour de France. And he finished on podium at both Paris-Roubaix and Leige-Bastogne-Liege. He was the real deal.

There are a few points from Hoban’s interview that are worth taking a closer look at:

“If you’re 30th wheel off the Kemmel then you’re as good as off the back. You have to be able to see the leaders when you come off the top.” Hoban was asked about Mark Cavendish’s performance in this year’s Ghent-Wevelgem race, where the world champion was caught behind a split on the climb of the Kemmelberg. Cavendish was sitting about 30th wheel and there was a split in the field ahead of him; he never made it back to the front of the race. I don’t know whether his overall criticism of Mark Cavendish is warranted or not (Cav is the current World Champion, has already won in 2012, and there are a lot of big goals still to be pursued in 2012), but even if he were talking about a different rider, the lesson here for you – as you head into local and regional road races and criteriums – is that the farther back you are in the field, the more you’re putting your fate in the hands of other riders. All it takes is one rider letting a gap open over the top of a climb or in a headwind/crosswind and your race is over. Staying at the front is about controlling your own fate.

“I used to do much of my training in the Flemish Ardennes – I’ve trained on all of the hills which appear in the Cobbled Classics and used to use them as markers. I’d have set start points and attack them as if I was racing. But I used to find that until I reached racing weight, I couldn’t drive all the way to the prime lines – I’d crack maybe 30 metres before.” This is the way we trained back before heart rate monitors, power meters, and GPS units. I love new training technologies but it’s important to realize that new devices are confirming and quantifying some of what we’ve known for a long time. Power-to-weight ratio used to be measured by observation: where would you crack on an all-out effort on a familiar climb? Even now, when we have more precise data, it’s good to look beyond the numbers. For instance, you can’t just look at average power and elapsed time to the top. When you’re getting to optimal race weight and have good climbing power, you’ll be able to accelerate through the steep pitches instead of bogging down on them. The ability to “rev” the gear you’re in, whether on a climb or to close a gap on flat ground, is a good indication that you’re race ready.

“The magic number is 200 – a race over that number of kilometres is a boy’s race. When it goes up to 260 K that’s when it becomes a man’s race – that extra hour-and-a-half makes all the difference.” People sometimes ask why the Spring Classics are so special. What makes them that much different than other one-day races throughout the year? Why are the winners of these races so exalted? There are a lot of solid professional riders who are legitimate contenders in races between 200-240 kilometers. Past 240km, the number of riders who can really contend for victory diminishes rapidly. When you add in the steep, sharp climbs of the Flemish Ardennes, and the cobblestones, and potentially the cold and dust or mud – that contender list gets very small. Hoban’s right. That extra hour-and-a-half makes a huge difference. I saw it first-hand. The separation would happen after 200km; one by one it would be ‘lights out’ for guys who were driving the pace 50km back. It wasn’t that the eventual winner suddenly found another gear; it’s a war of attrition, and there’s no way you can fake or mooch your way to victory in a 250+ kilometer Classic.

The lesson for amateurs is that when you’re fit, don’t wait and think that you’ll just uncork your power in the final few miles. Drive the pace, instigate breakaways or contribute to the chase. This works even better if there’s a small group of stronger racers in a larger field. Work together to make the race harder for everyone – make even a shorter race a race of attrition – and you’ll take a large portion of the field out of contention. If you let weaker riders conserve their energy until the final 10 miles, you’re gifting them a legitimate chance to beat you.

So set your DVR or invite your buddies over for a Tour of Flanders breakfast tomorrow morning. And as you’re watching the final 90 minutes of the race, pay attention to the guys 15-20 places back from the front of the peloton. That’s the dividing line; if you can stay forward of that position you’re in contention for victory, and that’s where you’ll see men separate from the boys.

Happy Viewing,
Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach
Carmichael Training Systems

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