The UCI Road World Championships for 2022 took place below the equator in the beachside township of Wollongong, Australia. Although the finish line was pressed adjacent to the rolling waves, the race took us up into the subtropical rainforest of Mt Keira, a softly winding climb that borders the suburbs before taking us back into the town centre and then spitting us out onto some fast and technical circuits.
The 17.1km circuit tore through the thick of the suburbs including a savage 1.1km ramp up Ramah Avenue, averaging 7.7% with a maximum of 14%. This climb was (correctly) tipped to be the point where the peloton would be shredded. It reminded me a little of the ‘Mur de Huy’ in Flèche Wallonne because of its immediate brutality, without the precipice of a steady incline to tenderise the legs before you get slapped with an unforgiving gradient.
Living in Europe meant that most of the peloton had very little to no time to get very familiar with the course, bar a few days prior to the race where teams were able to recon the circuits with closed roads.
How then do you prepare for arguably the most important race of the year without even riding the course?
Here are five ways we prepare for big events from afar…
We race all year on a diverse terrain, but when aiming to compare one race to another, we take into account the distance, the elevation metres, and selective points of the race (near the end, near the finish?) and how the final/finish line looks (is uit uphill, is it flat, how far from the last climb is it, is it technical? We also look at the competitors and the level we will be up against (which riders have prevailed in the past at hard races with a fast flat finish?) Factoring in all these things together help us construct scenarios and formulate a strategy. The World’s course had 2,433 meters of climbing in 169.8km. A portion of the climbing came quite early in the race (Mt Keira) but the repeated (six) efforts of Ramah Avenue clocked up the elevation meters quickly and required savvy positioning and a high Vo2 max effort each time around.
The Womens WorldTour peloton raced a long race most recently in the stage of the Vuelta España. It was undulating, but had an uphill final which only flattened out in the closing metres, and we saw Silvia Persico win, Demi Vollering and Elisa Longo Borginhi round out the podium, followed closely by Lotte Kopecky. Demi was a DNS at Worlds, but the aforementioned riders either podiumed or were in the elite selection at Worlds.
Other examples are long, attritional one day races like the Tour of Flanders, Klasikoa San Sebastián, or Liege Bastogne Liege which has 2360m of climbing over 141.8km. All of these races also have very challenging climbs late in the race but have 10km or more until the finish line, similar to Worlds. By analysing how these races played out, and which riders showed their strength there, we can confidently expect that similar riders/outcomes will be likely.
My race at Worlds was around four and a half hours long. So I worked with my coach John from Science2Sport to look at what energy systems I needed to dial in, and most importantly, hone in on my repeated high-intensity efforts. In my preparation phase I was doing 25-minute ‘tempo’ climbs which replicate the demands of Mount Keira and improve my fatigue resistance, vital in such a long race. I also found a climb in Girona that was similar to Ramah Average and would do two – four-minute repeats up the climb at basically my all-out effort, (provided I could repeat the effort). We didn’t just cram these specific efforts at the last minute, I have been doing them all year in order to see improvements in my power and repeatability.
Professional cycling teams have access to more information about the course, weather and landscape of races than ever before. We use digital platforms such as VeloViewer, Strava and Google Street View to flesh out the details of the parcours. Still, it is hard to really grasp the flow of a course without the pilots-eye view at a similar speed in which you ride. With Wollongong Worlds, it was simply not possible for most riders or staff to make the trip down under to see the course in real life. For this reason, FulGaz was heavily utilised to give us a clear insight to what the course looked and felt like. The time triallists in particular used Fulgaz extensively to prepare, as preparing for a time trial on open roads is risky and difficult to replicate such a technical course as Wollongong. It’s no secret that Fulgaz was also a powerful tool in preparing the Australian Riders for the Olympic Games in Tokyo, another far off nation difficult to conceptualise unless you are actually there. You can also ride the Worlds Course on Fulgaz!
While most of our effort is hinged on our own strength and strategy, it would be remiss to consider how other strong nations might be scheming in order to take home the rainbow stripes. Looking at previous success, their willingness to work as a team, whether they have a strong team with multiple options to win or if they have a team built around one rider. If a hard race or a more controlled race will suit them…These all impact how we react and respond to moves in the peloton and which roles we are assigned as riders. For example, we earmarked the Italian team (8 rider strong) versatile riders with Elisa Longo Borghini,l and obviously the 2021 world champ, Elisa Balsamo. The other big hitters were the Dutch Team, also home to previous world champions and with riders who have won/podiumed at LBL, Klasikoa, Flanders etc. We expect them to take control of the race with such depth. We have to take notes on how they have performed in the past to guess how they may approach this race. We saw the Italians ride as a fierce collective last year and indeed this year as well. The Dutch have the most firepower to make the race hard and even more selective if they choose, so we ensure we are attentive at points in the race when they could seize an opportunity to attack.
The Australian team for the World Championships is selected and announced only weeks before the race. Other teams might not know they are racing up until a few days beforehand. With this in mind, the directors and coaches have a pretty clear plan of how they envision the race unfolding and select a team they think can pull it off. Once the team was selected we were immediately on zoom calls and email threads discussing the scenarios, the leaders, and the goals. We had repeated meetings over the weeks before the World Champs to fine-tune the details and make sure we were all on the same page. Clear, open and honest communication, trust, shared feelings of success and importance all allow you to line up on the day amongst like-minded athletes with the same goal. To win. We don’t simply show up on the start line and all race for our own result, we have by this point already established our riders most likely to podium, we know the course, we know our role and we trust one another. This aspect takes dedicated time and work just like the other aspects of preparation.
Of course, these are only a few pieces of the puzzle when it comes to a race, behind the scenes there are staff members working years and years out from the event to make sure it all goes smoothly and the riders simply have to focus on training, racing and recovering. The team extends far beyond the riders at the start line.