The Great Cascade Classic Stage Race

The Cascade Classic has long been one of my favorite stage races. Ever since I got into stage races, I loved the format, the strategy, and the difficulty of having to perform well for several days in a row. I’ve always had a lot of fun trying to survive and end up near the front of the field at the end of the week.

Check out a video I made along with this article. It goes over much of the same stuff if you want to listen instead of read or if you want a few extra little examples… I’ll be posting more videos in the future, so go ahead and subscribe to my youtube channel if you’re into podcasts or informational youtube content.

Not everyone can be a good general classification stage racer, but most riders can get something valuable out of stage racing. Because there’s a lot going on with individual stages, teamwork, the overall classification, recovery and nutrition to take care of from day to day, you have to set reasonable goals for the week and keep your priorities straight. Don’t waste energy on things that don’t matter to you or your team. It’s easy to get caught up racing hard on a stage that doesn’t matter to you or your team, but you should keep your head straight and do what is helpful in working towards your goals.

If you want to go for the GC, you have to be focused every day. As much as you might want to, you don’t have to win anything to win the general classification or to be on the overall podium, but you can’t ever afford to mess up and lose significant time. You have to be within striking distance of the front of the race on every stage. The podium is almost always made up of the three guys that were among the strongest 10 or 20 riders, but in most cases they’re the ones who made the fewest mistakes. This could be tactical mistakes made during the races, or it could be shortcomings in training, nutrition from day to day during the race, sleep, recovery, or equipment. You may not have to do everything perfectly, but you have to do everything without any major blunders.

Even if you aren’t a GC rider, you can go for stages and come away with a result. If your team has a GC rider, your help can be invaluable to achieving a GC result on your team. You can save all of your cards for the one day that suits you well. You could sit in and wait for moments of opportunity that may come at any moment during the race. But you may have to be content to sit back and save energy when it’s easy and the race is up the road in order to have more energy for tomorrow’s race. Or you may need to lose time early in the race so that you can go up the road in a breakaway on the last stage or the most prestigious and difficult stage. Even if you’re 20 minutes down in the GC, but you win the queen stage, that’s a huge success. Or you may be a sprinter who can’t train for great endurance, and you might be able to win the crit, even though you’re just hanging on in the other stages. Again, this is a success by most standards.

Always look for opportunity and try to take advantage when it’s available.

Going into any stage race, you should really make a plan. Look at the stages and try to identify where your strengths and weaknesses will show themselves throughout the week. Look for opportunities where you are strongest, but more than anything, look for ways to keep your weaknesses from becoming liabilities where you’ll lose time or get a bad result. Or, if you’re going for stage results and not the overall, identify stages that don’t matter to you. Go into those stages with the intention of working for your team and saving energy wherever possible. It may seem like the race will be hard no matter what, but really, if you’re just trying to get through it and not get time-cut, then you can save a lot of energy. A lot of riders go hard on days when they really shouldn’t, just because they are motivated to ride hard simply because it’s a race. Just keep your priorities straight. Remember that it may be a bike race, but it isn’t necessarily your race, you’re just along for the ride as you wait for, say, tomorrow’s stage where you’re going to go for it.

Set goals for each day and for the race as a whole. Make sure you know what you need to do each day so that you can focus on what’s happening right now and not stress about the week as a whole.

Know your focus and ignore everything else to stay on track.

 

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Q & A: Some guidelines and some lessons I’ve learned

What should I do to get faster?

Well, faster how? What do you do now? What are your weak areas? Do you want to have a better top-end speed sprinting against your buddies or at the finish of races? Do you want to be able to hammer short 2m rollers better? What about finishing a long ride with a quicker average pace? There’s a lot of ways to get faster, but of course this question is probably the most frequently asked in one form or another. But of course, it’s a very open ended question, ultimately raising the issue of specificity.

Training is all about getting better at the kind of activity that you practice, or becoming more resistant to specific types of fatigue. Whatever you want to get better at is what you should be doing in training, and you should also include any similar intensities or activities so that your strength is more well-rounded. If you want to sprint better, then you need to practice sprinting. If you want to do long climbs better, then you need to ride long climbs. You will want to train at the goal intensity as well as above and below that intensity by 10 to 20%. If your goal is to do a 30m hill climb at, say, 300w because that’s about what your previous peak 30m power is or perhaps it’s slightly more, then you should do some 30-60m threshold efforts at 90-95% of your goal power. You should also do 3-5m intervals at 110-120% of your goal power. By doing this, you can increase your aerobic efficiency and muscular endurance by doing longer efforts than your goal, and you can get more comfortable at or near your VO2-max so that when you’re doing your goal effort it’s well below that upper limit. You’ll be more comfortable when you need to go a little extra hard to get up some steep pitches or get out of the saddle for brief periods. If you’re trying to become a better sprinter, for example, then you need to increase your leg-speed, power, and efficiency. You need to practice sprinting, but also sprinting with high leg-speed as well as with high-torque (i.e. lower leg speed).

 

How much should I ride?

In short, as much as you can while still enjoying or improving your riding. That benefit may be fitness related, or it may have to do with personal satisfaction. Your main constraint may be time availability and scheduling, in which case you want to build up your volume as much as you reasonably can fit into your week. Or if you have a lot of flexibility, then you may want to train as much as you will enjoy or will help enable you to reach your goals. If it’s the latter, remember that more riding is not better, rather more riding may be good as long as you can recover effectively from it.

Training is ultimately always a matter of stress and recovery. The best training has these in balance, hopefully stressing your body at higher and higher levels as you adapt and continue to recover from the stress you expose your body to. You can enhance this recovery by having good diet and good sleep, but also to a lesser extent by other things like self massage, light stretching, swimming, etc. If you can’t recover and get stronger from your training, then you should look at ways to increase or enhance your recovery (eat better post-ride meals, sleep more, get more massage, etc.), but if you are doing what you can and cannot bring your recovery to a level that allows you to progress in your fitness level, then you should consider reducing your overall training load. Sometimes you may be able to maintain the intensity of your hard workouts, but just reduce your total training volume just a bit. Sometimes just that extra hour or two of riding each week means that your body can’t recover as well as it could. Just reducing your calorie expenditure by that last 300 or 500 or 1000 calories each week may be the difference of progress and stagnation.

Once you’ve built up your volume as much as you are going to, then it’s a matter of increasing the difficulty of your training within that time by slowly increasing the average intensity of your training, by increasing the maximal intensity of your hard efforts, or by making training more challenging by doubling up on workouts or modifying your diet. This can become more challenging and complex, how you balance workouts, training volume, recovery between workouts, and diet as you strive for ever increasing performance or satisfaction in your riding. It’s probably worth it’s own article. 🙂

 

How often should I ride hard?

Again, this comes down to what your training routine is like and how well you can recover from harder training sessions. For many people, just two hard workouts each week is plenty of stress for them, and it may take 2 or 3 days to recover from the hard workouts, leaving the rest of the week to be taken as off or easy days. For many people, they may manage well with a couple of hard workouts each week, one or two moderate workouts, and a couple of easy or off days. For high level athletes training to peak or getting prepared for multi-day events, they may occasionally do multiple hard workouts in a week or in a row as a hard training block. This is usually the exception to the rule, and wouldn’t be done too regularly. If it was the rule, then probably the workouts aren’t actually hard enough to make them totally worth while. As a rule, riding somewhat hard all of the time isn’t the best way to progress.

For most people, the best strategy is to do a hard workout followed by 1-3 days off or easy. This strategy is effective and easy to implement. It allows you to be pretty sure that you will be fresh and ready for a hard workout when you plan to do one. Or if your schedule is highly variable, you may just plan 2 or 3 workouts each week, and you can work them in on the days that you have time, and all of the other days can be taken as they come with off or easy workouts, or maybe some cross-training. Depending again on your goals, you may want to do some workouts back to back either to enhance your ability to deal with intensity day after day (e.g. if you are planning on doing multi-day events), or to increase your endurance by doing a long or hard ride followed by another endurance session. Doing endurance training in a pre-fatigued state can be very effective for building endurance, but it is also challenging, so you want to be sure to recover well after double sessions like that, and plan accordingly. It’s not usually something to be done very frequently.

Just as this question will  have different answers for different people, then This question is likely to have different answers at different times of the season. If you are trying to build up volume and focusing more on strength and endurance, and less on high-aerobic or anaerobic fitness, then you may only do 1 or 2 moderately hard workouts each week, but may include more mileage in your overall routine and maybe a few drills in most of your rides. Or if you are getting ready for a peak in the middle of the season because you have some target event(s) to prepare for, then you may do 3 or 4 hard workouts in a week, before taking a several day long taper, while still maintaining some level of intensity.

What do I do with my power meter?

The most basic thing you can do is to use it as a measure of intensity on your rides or during intervals or hard efforts. Usually for longer efforts, I would use it early to make sure you don’t overdo it. Late in efforts, it can be good to keep you on task and help prevent you from letting your power drop too much when you’re tired. For shorter efforts, it can be good to gauge your intensity from start to finish, again, but the more intense any given effort is, the harder it is for you to always achieve your best power. So, you can have a target power in mind for short intervals, but you may want to adjust accordingly depending on your fatigue or other circumstances. Ideally, you will always use the power meter to maximize the overall quality of your training. Usually this would consist of trying to do all of your intervals at about the same power, and for anything longer than a minute or so, would probably include keeping a fairly steady power throughout each interval.

You can use power to see peak performances, and then to estimate sub-maximal performances. Each season or over all of your data, you can see what your personal best power is for every duration and then see how your current performances stack up against them. You can see how your power compares to other athletes. You can see how good your workouts are from week to week, month to month, and season to season. Often, if you know what your recent peak power is for various durations, you can use that data to help set guidelines for workouts. For example, if you know your peak 60m power, then you may try to do 95-100% of that power for a 3x15m threshold workout. Or you may use your 10-12m peak power as a goal for a 4x4m VO2-max workout.

Over time, you can gauge the overall difficulty and quality of your training. You can see how much work you do each week. And maybe you’d even track how much power you do over time relative to your HR, as a means of tracking aerobic fitness.

There’s a lot you can do with power, but those are some of the basics and some of the more important ones.

What do I do with my HR monitor?

Like power, HR is a very helpful tool to use to gauge intensity, but it’s even a little more helpful with respect to aerobic intensity and current fatigue levels. For shorter efforts, a small to large portion of your power may be derived from anaerobic energy sources, and power can be good for measuring those kinds of efforts, but for longer efforts, power and HR are both very useful metrics to pay attention to. Often, it’s good to use HR as a goal and as an upper limit for your training intensities, and maybe sometimes, but rarely as a lower limit. E.g. you may do VO2-max intervals with the intention of reaching a HR of 170 or close to it, but over your 4 minute intervals, your HR will likely climb for the first 2-3 minutes and only peak a bit in the last 1-2 minutes, so you’d only be interested in seeing your peak HR numbers in that last portion of each interval.  HR is most effective for measuring efforts lasting longer than 4 or 5 minutes. It can also be good to keep you focused on longer rides, where you want your HR elevated so that you’re getting a workout, but not so high that you can’t sustain the intensity or so high that your long ride becomes so stressful that it takes days to recover from it. Often longer rides are best done with a mix of comfortable endurance riding and some shorter moderate to intense efforts, so maybe 90% of your weekend long ride is done at, say, <140 HR, and maybe for one or two 10-20 minute climbs in the middle, maybe you ride at >160 HR to get a good tempo or threshold workout in, for example.

Should I make a training plan?

Yes, but make it work for your routine. Some people will benefit from having a set routine that they follow every week and just vary the details slightly from week to week. Some people will benefit from having a progressive training plan with detailed workouts throughout the whole year. Others may benefit from just having a check-list of workouts or types of workouts that they want to include in their training every week or every few weeks, and then just fit them in as they can with a variable schedule. Set yourself up for success and plan according to your personality, training goals, and scheduling opportunities. Don’t set up a highly detailed training plan that is ultimately impossible to follow and sets you up for thinking that you’re failing at your training goals. Likewise, if you will benefit from having specific tasks to accomplish on each ride, it may be in your best interest to have specific workouts or workout guidelines to follow for each ride so that you can head out every day with purpose and come home at the end of each training session thinking that you did a good job and accomplished your goals. Many people will have their needs met somewhere in-between the fully structured and the totally unstructured training plan, but having some sort of gameplan is totally worth while.

Take it easy

For a lot of athletes, fall is the time of year that their competitive season winds to a close, the weather becomes less hospitable, and their activity level changes with the seasons. Whether you live in sunny California or somewhere in Norway with 3 hours of twilight during the winter, it’s not a bad idea to take it easy for at least a month or two between seasons. If you’ve had a busy season, then reducing the intensity and volume of your training and adding in some basic cross training activities will benefit you in the long run. The harder you’ve trained and raced, the more useful this recovery period will be. Even a total rest for a time can be good. Then again, if you mostly just train to stay fit and healthy, then you may not have to do so much to give yourself a therapeutic rest.

As much as I love training taking it easy is essential to maintaining overall health (mental and physical) and homeostasis for the systems in your body. This is true on a small scale of days and weeks, and a larger one of months and years. More and more people these days understand this basic truth of athletic training: It isn’t hard training, but good recovery that makes you perform as an athlete. Yes, you can get too much of a good thing. There is such a thing as too many good workouts, just like there is such a thing as too much recovery, but for the most part, endurance athletes have more of an issue with the former and not the latter. To that end, here are some basic points to remember for this time of year…

Lower your intensity. First and foremost,  lowering the intensity of your physical activity will allow your body to relax and reduce the stress it’s subject to, facilitating recovery in the process. Avoid most or all of your above threshold efforts for at least a couple of months. That’s not to say that you can’t go harder or faster than that intermittently, just don’t do any prolonged efforts or real workouts at higher intensities.

Lower your volume. Reduce your overall training volume per week and per month by at least 30-50% for at least 1-2 months. Your body won’t be exposed to a large calorie deficit every day or two while you’re training if you’re only doing half of the volume that you’re familiar with. So, your body will again be less stressed and be allowed to recover more fully than just a few days of easy training will do.

Get some therapy, both physical and mental. Be sure to include some stretching, yoga, massage, sleep, etc. in your routine. Take that training time and turn it into recovery time. Doing things to increase recovery physically, improve flexibility, or improve strength and balance will benefit you in the long run. Also, as much as training is fun, it can also be stressful. And, the time you spend on training can make you more pressed for time elsewhere in your life, so pay attention to stress reduction practices and look for places to streamline your life or carve out time for relaxation, meditation, or even just listening to mellow music that you like… all of those those things can help you out.

Get plenty of sleep. More people say that sleeping 7 hours a night is plenty for optimal health. That may be true for a mostly sedentary person when you’re talking about statistical averages and large populations, but that’s not addressing the reasons for the sleep and why certain individuals get 5, 7, or 9 hours a night. Our bodies evolved to sleep a lot more than we currently get, and as long as you don’t have a sleep disorder, there’s no way for you to sleep any amount that would be too much. Rather, most people learn to get by with less than enough, so do what you can, when you can to sleep more. Sleep is almost always the strongest driver of recovery.

Eat healthily. This is also a no-brainer that should always be a priority. But, especially if you’re taking a little less of your time to train, maybe you could use a little bit of that time to look at your diet and see if there are changes that you could or should make that you think would work better for you. Pay attention to what has worked for you in the past and what hasn’t. Try to identify bad habits that you have and strategies to eliminate them. For example, take your lunch to work instead of eating out, you’ll probably save money and improve your nutrition. And, when in doubt, eat more vegetables.

Look ahead to next year. If it’s October, then you definitely don’t need to worry about workouts for your spring and summer races next year, but you can pay attention to how you’re going to prepare for them when the time comes. Pick out your coach for the coming season, email your coach with some feedback about this last year and what you think would be good for next season, or work out the details of your own training plan. Whether you’re following someone else’s guidance for your training or you plan it out yourself, whether you have plans written out to the day or a general month to month guideline, do pay attention to how your knowledge and experience would guide your training choices. When you plan ahead, you can plan reasonably. If you don’t have a plan and make things up day by day and week by week, based on group rides and whatever races happen that weekend, then you’re unlikely to have nearly the same level of success as you would if you planned ahead. Identify the races that you care about, the ones you’ll use for training, and the ones you should skip. That way you can go into races with an appropriate level of focus and psychological investment, rather than getting caught up with every race as though it’s your last, and keep your sights on whatever goals you have. Then again, maybe you know that you don’t particularly care about any special races and just have to pick the races you can do based on your workload throughout the year. That’s fine too, but it’s good to know that and get your mental game straight either way.

Hopefully you can have a good time taking it easy and looking ahead to all of the new experiences you’ll have in the coming year. It’s the time of year to do it, so enjoy it and take advantage of the break from training and racing.