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In the lead-up to the 2020 season, one of the most common questions I fielded was about how I was going to change my training from being in the WorldTour to preparing for gravel races. My reply was always, “Ask me in a year, I don’t know yet.”
While most everything in my professional life has changed, some things remain the same. I currently find myself chest deep in offseason projects and letting the bike gather dust. My self-imposed bike quarantine feels the same as it always has; feeling thicker in my waist, and antsy to begin the work towards 2021.
But as I marinate on the couch, IPA in hand, I’m finally ready to answer how being a pro gravelleur compares to being a WorldTour roadie.
This turned out to be an alternative season for everyone. COVID lockdowns and subsequent race cancellations put an asterisk on my ability to fully compare old and new. Yet there are some intrinsic differences to investigate, though — things that are a reality, virus or not.
Some differences you might expect; the total distance I rode this year was less than 2019. Off-road riding is considerably slower and stage racing in the pro peloton accrues kilometers quickly. In 2019 with a full WorldTour schedule I raced 83 days, from Tour Down Under in January until Tour of Guangxi in late October with a grand tour in the mix. This year I only pinned a number on six times.
Total hours ridden, on the other hand, are closer between the two years. I only spent 76 fewer hours in the saddle than in 2019. Should my full gravel calendar had happened, I think the total hours would have been so close it could have come down to a recount! A typical WorldTour stage is about 4.5 hours, whereas most of the gravel races I focus on are near six. As such, the most common training ride last year was four hours and this year I consistently ticked over five hours more often than my roadie years. All of these bigger rides add up to me clocking similar hours, even without the race days.
A more interesting comparison is the type of load I accrued and the physiological changes that accompanied it. Road races are characterized by moments of lulls accentuated by vicious bursts of high power. Gravel grinders are, as the name suggests, just that. Most of my gravel race power files read similarly to a breakaway in a WorldTour race.
Attacks to win the race are crucial, but races are based on gentleman’s tactics and attrition before slugging it out. There’s no sitting in and waiting for the sprint or having your teammate chase moves down. Most organizers actually cry foul over such tactics: the Gravel Worlds #1 rule is “Don’t Be Lame.” And Belgian Waffle Ride actually has a purple card/purple jersey classification. The Mid South, characterized by the sticky mud where one had to earn every pedal stroke, was probably my highest 5-hour power average of all time.
This was a type of effort I’d shied away from my entire World Tour career: A 5.5-hour time trial sounded miserable, and there was never a need for that training. I was defined by my mountain climbing capacities, and my efforts in training and racing were largely about focusing on high power outputs and buffering that lactate quickly to repeat it.
As I’ve done more and more grinding, I’ve learned to enjoy the multi-hour flow state. Settling into the grind and letting what some call our reptilian brain take over, pushing everything aside for a singular basic focus. With the decrease in high capacity efforts, I’ve actually gotten lighter as well. I’ve lost some muscle mass in my legs, and while my top end may have suffered a bit, my threshold stayed the same, which means I am climbing faster on longer stuff and also gained a new resilience.
I’ve learned to sit in that zone of redlining for hours upon end and actually let my mind drift while physically keeping the pressure on. This showed in the White Rim FKT efforts, which is literally a 5.5-hour threshold test. I didn’t have a power meter on my curated MTB setup, but I am sure it was one of the best efforts of my career, a conclusion supported by the heart rate data.
Recovery was very different too. After both the White Rim and The Mid South, there was so much deep-seated muscle damage from pushing the limit for so long. It took me weeks to crawl out of the hole from what should have been equivalent to a one-day race. I’ve never been so destroyed after one-day efforts as I have been this season.
Another factor is the impact of outside stress. This year was characterized by its own new set of challenges: COVID caused me to have to reinvent myself a second time just months after making a career change. With both pivots, long hours were spent on the computer, creating pitch decks, and pitching myself on conference calls. As I’ve mentioned in previous Groad Trips, that extracurricular stress doesn’t exist in pro road; the singular pursuit of speed is a lot simpler than the hustle of being a privateer.
However, the constant stress of hunting for your next contract, navigating team politics, and the reoccurring jet lag were non-existent. As you probably have heard me say before, a happy racer is a fast racer, and I enjoyed myself more than ever this season. Funnily enough, despite drinking more beers and worrying less about racing weight, I was lighter during my White Rim and recent BWR than ever before in my WorldTour career. It was a very strong reminder that cortisol and stress levels can have a massive impact on athletic performance.