finish faster

How to Finish Faster at Annual Cycling Events (SBT GRVL, Leadville 100, Unbound, Gran Fondos)

By Jim Rutberg,
CTS Pro Coach, co-author of “The Time-Crunched Cyclist” and “Ride Inside
10x Leadville 100, 2x Unbound Gravel, 1 SBT GRVL

Almost as soon as riders wipe the sweat and grime off their faces, they ask how they can go faster at the same event next year. This is part of the appeal for events that feature the same course year after year (e.g. Leadville 100, SBT GRVL, most gran fondos and road races). No matter where you finished in the standings, you can always return and race the course to better your personal performance. Here’s what you can do to go faster next time.

Start with 2 Weeks of Mental and Physical Recovery

Even if you are fired up to beat this year’s finish time, your body and brain need a break after months of regimented training and heightened focus. And, of course, there’s the fact that goal events like those mentioned above leave you physically exhausted and beat up. We typically recommend very light activity during the two weeks following major goal events, unless an athlete has subsequent events closely following the goal event.

For instance, if SBT GRVL was your big event for the year, then short and easy recovery rides for 2 weeks is a good way to physically recover and achieve a mental break. Use this time to catch up on some of the work, family, and relationship priorities you put on the back burner as you focused on your event.

Reduce training structure for 2-4 weeks

After taking it easy for about two weeks, it’s time to start training again. At this point, though, the primary goal is to maintain the fitness you worked so hard to gain. You want to avoid substantial detraining because fitness is easier to lose than it is to gain. Fortunately, sports science is on your side this time; reducing your training workload by up to 50% for several weeks will only result in a loss of 5-10% of your current fitness level.

The duration of this unstructured training block can be relatively short (2 weeks) if you still have event goals coming up later in the season. Following your last major event of the year, a longer period of unstructured riding would be advisable (up to 4 weeks). Unstructured doesn’t mean optional, though. Consistency is still crucial; you can just take a break from structured interval workouts.

For context, reducing workload by 70% results in a 15-20% loss of fitness, which is what we typically see in athletes who take a prolonged break in the fall. While it’s not the end of the world, regaining 20% of your fitness can take months, and the total timeline to lose and then regain that fitness can span 4-5 months. It’s hard to make significant improvement from year to year if you spend a third of the year just losing fitness and getting back to where you started.

Set Specific Performance Goals for Next Year’s Event

Review your performance from this year’s event. What did you do well? What helped you achieve the time or result you recorded? Where did you lose time on the course? Why did you lose time (i.e. technical skill, climbing speed, didn’t eat enough, got dropped from the group, etc.)? Once you identify areas where you have the potential for improvement, narrow your choices by considering which changes could have the biggest impact on performance and speed.

For example:

  • You could go faster on the big climb by improving your sustainable power at lactate threshold and – perhaps more important – your time to exhaustion at that intensity.
  • You could work on your anaerobic capacity to stay on the gas longer to have a better start.
  • You could look into opportunities to upgrade your starting position (for some events you can earn preferential start corral positions through results in other races, volunteer work, or donations to non-profits).
  • If you struggled to stay in a strong group on the flat or windy sections, hone your group riding skills.
  • If you wasted a bunch of time in aid stations, create a better plan for getting in and out of stations faster. When CTS Coaches prepare athletes for cycling events like SBT GRVL, the Leadville 100 MTB, Unbound Gravel, or running events like Western States, the Leadville 100 Run, or UTMB, we teach and practice efficient aid station strategies. Athletes can often finish 10-15 minutes faster (and sometimes even more) just by being more efficient through aid stations.

Use late-season events for skill acquisition and funn

Events are great for creating novel training stimuli, maintaining social connections, and providing opportunities to develop cycling skills and nutrition strategies. If you have already completed your big goal events for the year, you can register for late summer and fall events with no pressure! Go have fun with the fitness you’ve earned. Try out tactics, pacing strategies, and nutrition plans you want to experiment with.

Address equipment changes and bike fit early

If you plan to go back and try to go faster at the same event next year, let’s say SBT GRVL or Leadville, address equipment choices and bike fit early. A lot of people wait until the winter or spring to get new bikes, or wheels, or to adjust their bike fit. If you act earlier, you have more time to experiment with equipment and bike fit, and then more time to train and optimize performance with that equipment setup.

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End the year with higher Chronic Training Load than you started

This is a generalized recommendation that might not work for every athlete, but a goal you could set now is to keep your Chronic Training Load (CTL) from dropping below your starting point from the beginning of the year. CTL doesn’t address specificity. For instance, it doesn’t indicate the type of training you’ve been doing. It is calculated with a weighted the average of daily Training Stress Score from the previous 42 days. Reaching December 31 at a higher CTL than you had in January of this year means you’ll have the capacity to handle a higher training workload right from the beginning of next year. That means you have the opportunity to build to higher peak fitness later in the year.

Obviously, this is a very simplistic way of evaluating whether you are “better than last January”. A more nuanced goal for the end of the year would be to target improvements in specific aspects of your aerobic or anaerobic performance, which in some cases can result in a reduction in CTL but an increase in a more event-specific component of fitness. But as a more general recommendation, retaining or increasing CTL gives athletes a more specific goal than “avoid detraining”.

NOTE: Keeping your fitness is important for athletes over 40, and really important for Grand Masters cyclists over 60. Grand Masters are fighting normal consequences of aging that reduce VO2 max and make retaining or building new muscle mass more difficult, among other changes. You can improve fitness and go faster next year because there is still room between where you are now and your maximum potential (even as that potential gradually declines). But you have some challenges young athletes can overcome more easily, so do yourself a favor and stay on it!

Don’t wait until entry lotteries to start event training

Some popular cycling events use lotteries to ensure athletes have a fair chance to secure entries.

Some 2024 event lottery dates include:

  • SBT GRVL: 2024 lottery details haven’t been released yet, but historically, the SBT GRVL registration and random selection process runs from mid-November through early December. See page for details.
  • UNBOUND Gravel 200, 100, 50, or 25. Register for the lottery from January 5, 2024 @ 12:00 pm CT until January 20, 2024 @ 11:59 pm CT. Lifetime members get earlier access. See page for details.
  • Leadville 100 MTB: Athletes will have the opportunity to be entered into the 2024 lottery from December 1st, 2023, at 10 a.m. MST until December 15th, 2023, at 11:59 p.m. MST. Non-lottery options include charity entries and qualification races. See page for details.

Don’t wait until December to start preparing for the 2024 SBT GRVL, 2024 Leadville 100, or 2024 Unbound Gravel. If you set a time in a race this year and you want to go faster next year, use as much of the year between the events as possible! Waiting until you know you have an entry means a significantly shorter training runway. And even if you don’t get into your goal event you’ll be able to pivot to another event more easily.

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Comments 2

  1. I’m a 68 year old female who’s been off and on riding in 2021 and 2022 due to eye surgeries. I’m working with a coach right now. I notice that one week off seems to take me a month to come back. I have a bike tour in Moab in September and am racing in a masters race in October.

    I have two questions:
    1) Is there any research regarding older female athletes/cyclist and recovery time for them?

    2) Why do coaches recommend not doing intervals at this point in the season?
    My average mph has slowed since I stopped doing intervals and Zwift workouts with similar.


    1. Maria,
      There are some original research articles on the benefits of strength training in managing osteoporosis, sarcopenia (muscle loss) and risk factors from falls in male and female populations. Exercise for Prevention is one. The study of the aging athlete body is an ongoing process therefore not as much exists as it relates to enhanced performance. To date, Joel Friel provides one of the best training resources for the mature athlete in his book Fast After 50. For more female specific guidelines checkout this blog by Selene Yeager where she discusses specific fueling and high intensity training strategies and other ways for the mature female athlete to perform well. Selene Yeager Live Feisty

      One of the basic principles for training plan construction is to periodize your workouts based on the demands of the sport/event. You have a bike tour of Moab in September, thus perhaps a break from intervals may be warranted. Anaerobic/VO2max efforts are very sport specific training intervals (aka 30secs up to five minutes) with short lasting effects. These could likely come just after recovery from your Moab volume leading into your race event in October. Remember, as your ride/race season winds down this is the time to allow your body rest and recovery from all your efforts and prepare for the next phase of training.

      Currently, hyperlinks aren’t working, so I’ve included the full links below:
      Exercise for Prevention:
      Link to Selene Yeager content:

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