Training analysis: How Carter Jones won the Tour of the Gila

A look at Carter Jones' power numbers shows how he was able to win on the roads of New Mexico and fight on in California

American Carter Jones (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies) has been making consistent progression in the domestic professional ranks for the past few years. He had a breakout season in 2013, starting with an eighth-place finish at the SRAM Tour of the Gila, followed by a first in the mountains classification at the Amgen Tour of California.

Later in 2013, Jones went on to get another eighth place at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah and an 11th at the USA Pro Challenge, thus cementing his place as one of the top domestic GC riders in tough stage races.

In 2014, after moving from Bissell to Optum, Jones wanted to build on that success by going for the win at the Tour of the Gila and following it up with a top-10 GC placing at Tour of California. This might seem like a straightforward, reasonable progression for a young (25-year-old) pro, given his results in 2013.

In reality though, being in shape to win a difficult stage race like the Tour of the Gila, and still be fit, yet fresh enough to finish high in the overall in a weeklong stage race only one week later, presents a difficult challenge.

When planning for a year of training and racing, most assume a “linear periodization” approach is best. In simple terms, periodization is the systematic approach to training whereby the competitive year is divided into distinct cycles, or periods, and the linear approach typically culminates with a taper that leads into a target event at the end of the competitive year.

This approach may be well and good for a recreational athlete or a highly competitive age-grouper who may have one primary competition, but for a professional cyclist, performance needs to be consistently high over the course of a long season. Therefore, a traditional taper, which sacrifices fitness to gain freshness and enhanced performance, is not an option in April.

Further, the traditional taper is sometimes overdone — especially in highly fit competitors — and the athlete ends up being too fresh and consequently loses the sharpness necessary for optimal performance on the actual competition day. In the case of Jones, to be able to contend for an overall GC win at one of the toughest stage races on American soil he would need to be highly fit. At the same time, he would need to be fresh enough to go with explosive attacks and finishes that are inherent to GC battles.

Because of the complicated nature of planning short peaks of form for performances in the early or middle part of a season, one tool that has become invaluable with regards to seeing the big picture is performance modeling.

In simple terms, we use the power obtained from onboard power meters in training and competition to generate a training stress score (TSS), which then enables us to plot overall fitness (chronic training load, or CTL) and fatigue (acute training load, or ATL) profiles that interact in a way that allow us to predict relative performance level (training stress balance, or TSB).

An example can be seen in the “Performance Modeling Chart (PMC; Figure 1)” for the 2013 build-up to this same racing block.

From what we know about performance modeling, the big-picture training objectives prior to a stage race are the highest fitness possible (as indicated by  CTL, the blue line), enough freshness (as indicated by TSB, the yellow bars) so that the rider is not buried midway through the race, and — and this is the tricky part — not too fresh as to be “flat” at the start of the race.

The first stage of the Tour of the Gila always has a challenging finish that sets up the overall GC, so it was important to be sharp, not flat, at the start.

Some guidelines that have been presented elsewhere suggest that an optimal TSB for a target competition is approximately +10 and what we see as an athlete is more rested and the TSB is more positive, that they lose first sharpness, then fitness. On the other hand, during a hard stage race, the TSB will drop as the athlete fatigues (Figure 1), so, sacrificing a strong start to a stage race may be desirable if the end is difficult.

Since the Gila is selective at the start, the plan was for a target TSB on stage 1 of between +10 and +20. It can be seen in Figure 2 that the TSB ended up being +16 and with a concurrent CTL of 150 TSS/d; this was the ideal mix of high fitness and some freshness that would result in a strong ride in stage 1.

On the day, this stage ended up being very chaotic with two large crashes that sent several riders to the hospital. In the second crash, Jones’ bike was hit and although he was uninjured, he required a wheel change and a 15-kilometer chase to get back to the front group at the bottom of the finishing Mogollon climb. Still, he ended up fifth on the stage and in excellent position for the overall.

The next decisive day came in the stage 3 time trial, in which Jones took fourth and moved into the overall lead. He lost the GC lead in the penultimate criterium stage, but because he was still fresh enough — due to the positive TSB start to the race — he had a very strong final stage (the Gila Monster) and took back the overall lead to close out the race.

This was the biggest result of his young career, but it wasn’t the end of the story, because in exactly one week, he had to line up at the start of the biggest race on U.S. soil, the Amgen Tour of California, and one that he had targeted for a top-10 finish.

We had planned for this using his performance modeling and results for 2013 (Figure 1) and we had anticipated the way he would recover, then sharpen up, for the start of this race.

In 2013, the Amgen Tour of California opened with the difficult Palomar mountain climb, on which Carter took the KOM jersey that he would hold for the rest of the race. In contrast, stage 1 at the 2014 race was relatively flat and could be used as an “opener” session to get ready for the critical stage 2 time trial, and then the stage 3 Mount Diablo finish.

Since this race was longer and had a less-selective start, we could take the liberty of more rest and a concomitant higher TSB on day 1. Therefore, as can be seen in Figure 2, the TSB was 32 TSS/d to start the race, but fell precipitously over the course of the race and ultimately bottomed out at -54 TSS/d the day after the final stage. The anticipated scenario played out, with  stage 1 ending in a sprint.

In stage 3, Jones had a very good day, attacking from the select yellow jersey group in the last 5km on Diablo and holding on for sixth in the stage, and eighth in the GC. Unfortunately, he lost some time on the critical stage 6 finish to Mountain High and dropped to 11th overall, where he would finish the tour. It wasn’t quite top-10, but it was close.

All in all, it was a solid start to 2014 that picked up where 2013 left off. Jones has established himself as one of, if not the top domestic GC riders for big, difficult stage races. If similar improvements can be seen in the second half of 2014 vs. 2013, some impressive results could be in store.

Stephen McGregor, Ph.D., is Professor of Exercise Science and Director of the Applied Physiology Laboratory at Eastern Michigan University and is also a USAC level 1 and Power Based Training instructor. He has been coaching cyclists and triathletes for 20 years and currently works with Peaks Coaching Group.