Project World Title: My strategy, sensations, and thought process for winning worlds
A pursuit final is always tricky, because the time actually doesn't matter; it's the purest form of a race.
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This is the third of a three-part series by Ashton Lambie, who set a world record in the individual pursuit, in Mexico, in August. This series details his preparation for and participation in the world championships in France in October. You can read the first part here and the second part here.
Early on in my career, I remember one specific training session we had at a prep camp in LA involving a glut of fast food.
There was a Shake Shack just a short walk from the hotel, and we had a race simulation session the next day. The entire team went out, and somehow our order got messed up, and we ended with about a dozen extra burgers, fries, and shakes between maybe 10 athletes and staff. It was a veritable feast, and we were all relaxed, well fed, and I’d be hard pressed to believe anyone was stressed about the next day when they went to bed; I certainly wasn’t!
And chalk it up to lack of stress, extra calories or sodium, or anything else, but everyone was absolutely flying the next day.
So, this year at the world championships, when I was craving something other than some plain rice and chicken on Thursday night, I took a nice stroll to get a doner sandwich and had a little picnic in the picturesque square of central Roubaix.
Regardless of what happened the next day, I felt like I’d really enjoyed the process of getting here. I’ve gotten to see some amazing places around the world, done things no one thought would be possible, and gotten to know some truly incredible people. All that was left for tomorrow was to have fun!
Racing the qualifying round
Even as I walked up to the line for my qualifying ride, Team USA’s men’s coach Rob Stanley asked me, “Do you normally smile when you ride Ashton?”
I replied, “not usually, I’m just drooling all over the bike.”
“How about you try to this time?” he responded with a wry smile.
Mirek, our Polish mechanic, shouted “Zapierdalać!” (a swear word for ‘go really fast’ ) one last time as I made the walk up.
Shoe covers on, skinsuit adjusted, then helmet, chalk, water, and I was ready to go.
Wait, I hadn’t done a standing start since Mexico, how do I do this again?!
Zane, our American mechanic, remembers to do the locking mechanism on my pedals, there isn’t any stopping now.
5, 4, (deep breath to brace) 3, 2, 1 (hips back), BEEP!
The absolute violence of the gear hits me immediately, but I remind myself it’s basically a deadlift. And reset, and another deadlift.
OK, now switch to normal sprinting, keep the shoulders locked, get the head down coming out of turn two.
Last push, and get in the skis by turn three. I still feel behind the gear, but after a few hard pedal stroked in the first lap, I settle into the steady cadence of the turns.
This style of track requires constant attention and effort to navigate the line. Don’t drift too far, and don’t overcorrect if you do. I hear Rob yell a FOUR-EIGHT as I dive into turn one. It’s still my first kilometer, and that’s 0.2 up on pace. Don’t slow down, but just walk the pace back gently.
FOUR-EIGHT. I risk a peek up at the lap counter, and see 10 to go. Not bad, that’s almost to the last kilo. I wait for the lactate to bite, and take a few deep breaths to settle my pounding heart rate. Navigate the transitions, pin the black.
I’m now counting the laps to go, with Italy’s Jonathan Milan in my sights. I can feel the draft with two laps to go, and inch closer. And with a perfectly timed run, I land a 4:03.
I get to watch Filippo Ganna in his qualifying as I’m cooling down. With my extra draft of the catch, I get the top time with two qualifiers left, the giants of Claudio Imhof of Switerland and Ganna of Italy in the last two rounds.
My time still stands after Claudio sets a new Swiss national record. Ganna starts out slowly to his massive 4k acceleration, each lap faster than the last. It’s incredible to watch, and I find myself cheering just because it’s so impressive to watch an expert at their craft. And he comes up third, which puts me 2.5 seconds up going into the gold medal final.
I text my partner Christine as soon as the clock stops, just “Wow. OK.”
Ever the best person to lean on, she reminds me, “Take deep breaths. Stay present. Do the little things right.”
It was the first time I actually allowed myself to imagine standing on the top step in the white and rainbow jersey, and absolute life-long dream. I hop on the bike and ride back to the hotel, and stop at a boulangerie on the way back for a beet and cheese sandwich on a baguette to fuel the next round.
As stressful as it can be, I’d always take a gold medal final over a bronze. All I had to do was make it to the track to get another world champs medal! And even though I had the catch to help me in the qualifiers, I felt good about my chances in the final. I’d sent the power files over to Dan Bingham for analysis, and he confirmed that I was, in fact, very slippery in the wind.
Racing for a world title
So the next day, with a bit of morale, and after watching Ganna have another spectacular ride going for the world record, I set out to ride a perfect 2k intro, then race the second half.
A pursuit final is always tricky, because the time actually doesn’t matter; it’s the purest form of a race. The plan was to ride the same schedule to stay in the game, because Milan started fast, then Rob would call how far up or down I was on Milan over the last 2k, since that was all that mattered, not the schedule or lap times.
The start felt better after a practice run in the gate, and I quickly settled into the same pattern as last time. I only spared one glance across the track and up at the lap counter in the first 2 k. I came out of turn four, and heard FOUR UP. I was four tenths of a second up, and I knew I had a stronger second half of the race.
This could happen.
Next lap was FIVE UP. Then EIGHT UP. With two laps to go I was locked up and absolutely sprinting.
I crossed the finish line in disbelief. I’d just won my first world championship.
After four years of chipping away for tenths of a second, I’d finally gotten the elusive rainbows. To say I was overwhelmed was an understatement. I was ecstatic.
When I started this journey in a field in Kansas, I never imagined I’d get to pull on the famed rainbow bands. After missing out on the Olympic Games, and never knowing if I’d be able to defeat the most dominant pursuit rider in decades, I’d finally made it. I stood atop the podium. (Finally, the same height as the other Italians!)
I was sweating, crying, laughing, and just happy. Filippo, no stranger to a world championship podium, came over and showed me how to hold the medal properly. This was, in fact, my first rodeo.
The next few hours were a blur of brief interviews, selfies, a recovery drink in there somewhere (thanks Thais!) and drug testing.
After the staff caught the last bus around 10:30, I stood with some lingering staff in the velodrome and carefully folded the jersey into my pack for the ride to the hotel. Yes, I was still going to commute by bike; some things just don’t change.
After a late celebration, I snuck into the stairwell to eat a late-night doner sandwich and unpack the day with Christina. Medals aren’t much to have to yourself, but being able to deeply share this experience with my closest teammate, life partner, and all around amazing human being Chris was something to really remember.
The next few days were at a fairly leisurely pace to process it all. I guess that implies that I’ve actually processed this whole thing, which of course I haven’t.
I rode to Belgium to meet my Zwift teammate who lives there, and we did some easy k’s and intense coffee drinking. There was tasty pizza, scattered French conversations, lots of coffee, and more brookies (a brownie cookie).
So, what’s next? How do you top a season that included setting a new world record, breaking the 4-minute barrier, and winning a rainbow jersey? Fortunately, I get all off-season to figure it out. Thanks for all the support, motivation, and morale on the journey so far. Stay tuned, because it’ll keep going!