Photo:BettiniPhoto / Movistar Team
The following is a recap of the 2019 season, as told by rider Matteo Jorgenson and his coach Nate Wilson.
Matteo: At the U-23 Paris-Roubaix at the end of May 2019, I had a crash involving a disc brake rotor, which sliced my calf open. It required a lengthy surgery to fix and the rehab required was by no means standard nor well-known.
Neither I nor any of the medical professionals I had spoken to were very confident in the healing of my leg in time.
The Tour de l’Avenir, of my main goals of the 2019 season, was set to start in August, but after my crash, neither I nor any of the medical professionals I had spoken to were very confident in the healing of my leg in time. I told Mike Sayers and the US national team to count me out of the race block.
The disc brake had cut deep, down to the bone. Thankfully disc brakes are thin, and the extent of the damage was mostly limited to one muscle on the outside of the calf responsible for foot stabilization. The muscle is still weak and underdeveloped to this day, but a cycling shoe and cleat secures the foot well enough to hide the effects of the weakness while riding. As I started to work with a physio and discover the full nature of the injury, I was able to slowly ease back into training.
What felt like a lifetime off the bike only added up to a little over two weeks without riding and another week of extremely light exercise. It doesn’t seem like a huge hit in hindsight, but it translated to a full month of me stressing about my CTL dropping on TrainingPeaks!
Nate had a plan: we would begin training exactly as we would in the winter after an off-season break; basically, this would be an extremely accelerated version of a base period.
The first week I could do whatever I wanted, with the goal of staying under 15 hours for the week. Next came a somewhat structured 22-hour week with endurance and tempo.
The process wasn’t unfamiliar by any means, but the first few days on the bike, I spent a lot of time wondering what it must feel like to be fit! What usually spans a month in the offseason was condensed into a week, and the sensation of slow progress remained.
The physiological markers, personal feeling on the bike and self-confidence were improving fast enough that I asked Mike Sayers for the spot back on the Tour de l’Avenir team, and thankfully, he agreed. Nate and I started to prepare, targeting Tour of Alsace as my first big race back.
A Condensed Preparation
Nate: Our objectives in July 2019 were two-fold. The first goal was to re-build Matteo’s aerobic base. The second goal was to familiarize Matteo enough with race power that he could be involved in the race at Tour of Alsace, rather than just surviving it at the back.
Even though it meant blowing up and fading back, the hope was to attain the bump in race-specific fitness.
Without sufficient aerobic foundation, it would be unrealistic to recover well from Tour of Alsace, let alone to ride well in a 10-day stage race 10 days following. Without enough intensity, my guess is that Matteo would have survived Tour of Alsace no problem, but would have spent more time riding in the back of the field and trying to avoid the intensity in the race.
By having just enough top-end fitness to try and attack the race head on, even though it meant blowing up and fading back, the hope was to attain the bump in race-specific fitness to compete for results at Tour de l’Avenir.
Matteo: We had six weeks from the day I started riding again to the first stage of Alsace. There simply wasn’t time for an extended base build, so we had to rely on what I had done that winter.
As soon as my body started responding positively to a bit of load, I returned to France and went directly to altitude with Larry Warbasse. Altitude has always been really effective for me and I find I can adapt to the point of productive training quickly after arriving, making relatively short blocks at altitude still valuable; I was only able to squeeze in two weeks there but they were focused.
We weren’t aiming to be best possible in the races the next month. Instead, we were setting up for sustainability of form through the season.
Being the middle of July and the south of France, there were some days where I descended from altitude and got absolutely pummeled by the heat. My time off, and subsequently indoors, for recovery during the early summer meant I missed much of the normal heat adaptation gained from rising temperatures. Nate and I both noted this crack in my armor, but not much of a heat protocol could be afforded at this point.
Nate: What did July look like? Not that different from a typical pre-season month like January, but with a bit more intensity sprinkled through for familiarity. Without getting too detailed, I’d say we didn’t do any mega workouts with huge volumes of intensity. Instead we put in a few high-intensity efforts on most rides, to make it more of a gradual adjustment, rather than relying on two or three really hard workouts to try and rip the band aid off.
Both January and July were focused on preparing for races in the next month—but we weren’t aiming to be best possible in the races the next month. Instead, we were setting up for sustainability of form through the season. I like to look at the time in zones as a breakdown of how much time was spent at threshold and above. To quantify the differences:
January 2019 vs. July 2019
- Hours = 87.6 hrs vs. 86.4 hrs
- Time in Z4 = 0 min vs. 36 min
- Time in Z5 = 24 min vs. 48 min
- Time in Z6 = 12 min vs. 54 min
Matteo: By the time I lined up at Alsace, I had a few quality workouts and a hard one day French amateur race under my belt. My confidence was on the rise, and I was hopeful for the stage race, but on the decisive day (ending on the summit of Le Planche de Belle Filles), I was dropped early in the climb, and simply didn’t have it.
I only made it an hour before overheating in 100+ degree heat and pulled out in the feedzone.
The day after, on the most mountainous stage I successfully got in the early break, only to be caught and spit out into the groupetto by the end of the stage. This Alsace reality check was followed by GP Poggianna, a one-day race in Italy I raced with my trade team, Chambery Cyclisme Formation. I only made it an hour before overheating in 100+ degree heat and pulled out in the feedzone.
I remember writing to Nate that afternoon on the drive back to France about how I thought heat was going to ruin any chance I had of a result at Avenir. Being, at that point, only five days from the start, my insecurities about my heat adaptation were probably well-justified.
Stages 1-4: Freedom
It was easy to see from looking back at many previous editions of Avenir that it has a certain rhythm. Like most editions of the race, the 2019 edition traveled east across France from the mostly-flat west coast to the finish in the Alps; from flat to mountainous. Nate told me often leading into the race that, “it’s all played out in the Alps.” I believed that too, and not just because Nate told me so. Once the race began though, that knowledge seemed to escape me.
I began to lose time, and quickly the noise of the immediate losses drowned out the wisdom Nate had tried to instill. Between stages one and four I lost two minutes and 47 seconds. An average TTT performance cost us two of those minutes, and the day after that, I lost an additional 20 seconds on a short hilltop finish in the heat. In my head, an almost three-minute time loss felt unrecoverable, because in my experience it was. The longest stage race I had ever done prior to l’Avenir was just six days, and a three-minute gap in the GC would’ve been a long way down the results sheet!
From there on it became simple: I would either have the legs or not. Strangely, losing was a bit freeing.
I sat in bed after stage three and looked at the results page. There was the first group of every contender in the race, and then a 20 second gap to me, solo. I was dropped on the final drag to the line I had watched the group of the other GC leaders pull away. In reality, 20 seconds was close to where I needed to be, but that gap signified something else to me: It meant the small amount of confidence I once had in my preparation was all but gone.
I decided, as bad as this sounds, that talent would play itself out. From there on it became simple: I would either have the legs or not. Strangely, losing was a bit freeing.
Stages 5-6: Disbelief
On the morning of stage five, something was markedly different. The heat and sun of the first days seemed to have stayed on the west coast, and when I pulled back the blinds that morning, all I saw was rain. I was pumped.
We faced the Colombian team in the parking lot and I watched their faces as they nervously piled on rain gear…I knew it was time to fight.
Up to that point, all my “bad” performances that summer were in exceptionally hot conditions. I knew logically that heat couldn’t be solely responsible for these days, but somewhere in my brain that correlation between heat and getting dropped hadn’t gone unnoticed. I sat on the trainer, out of the rain under our van’s awning, before the stage and realized my legs were listening to whatever my brain was saying. The cold felt good.
We faced the Colombian team in the parking lot and I watched their faces as they nervously piled on rain gear. Their bikes were also on trainers, but they were so preoccupied by the weather that I don’t think they ever got on. Once I saw this, I got off the trainer early to line up first, in just a gabba, shorts and shoe covers. I knew it was time to fight.
When the neutral zone ended the race turned uphill and we hit a 20-minute climb immediately. The attacks flew and the main GC contenders started to join in the aggression. As the group began to pare down, it quickly became clear that today would be decisive.
I found myself easily making the selections and the same wheels that dropped me the day previous were struggling to hold the group. Once we reached the plateau, the group was only 30 or so, and not many leaders had teammates or impetus to isolate themselves further. This plateau was exposed too, as we had climbed out of a forest onto a farm road with a ripping cross-tail wind. I checked my Garmin map; the finish was 120k away, straight ahead with a long, straight-ish line leading right to it.
I actually thought to myself, “this is good, it removes the cat and mouse and we will all ride all-out.”
Guys began to call their team cars for jackets and bottles, and I just went for it. I hit out and was shortly joined by three others, all down on GC. After a short lived reaction from the group behind, the leaders sat up, and waited for their teammates and team cars which were spread across the road behind them.
Wisely, or not, I rode the rest of that stage all-out, purely to try and climb the GC ladder. At 3k to go our fellow escapee, Healy, attacked the Dane, Hulgaard, and I. I actually thought to myself, “this is good, it removes the cat and mouse and we will all ride all-out.” The Dane and I swapped turns just 10 seconds behind Healy and it was only under the flamme rouge that I tried to play for the stage win. Far too late: third on the day.
The next day was another race-shattering stage in the rain, and I again took third, clawing back more time on a lot of GC contenders. I had climbed back into the fold, and sat 6th on GC. A bit of self-confidence and definitely a moral change within the team was won back after those two performances. I couldn’t help but attribute some of it to the cold and rainy temps though, and the real mountains still loomed large.
Nate: As a coach, I find a lot of value in power numbers, but they are just part of the story of a race. By hearing the athlete’s perspective of how a race played out, we gain understanding of the context the numbers occured in, and thus the numbers themselves.
Quite simply, race directors don’t put the finish a tidy 20-minutes up the climb; they put it at the top.
Raw power numbers should always be taken with a grain of salt, because they are not always reflective of “best capable”. There are a lot of examples, but quite simply: race directors don’t put the finish a tidy 20-minutes up the climb; they put it at the top. Plus, the hoops athletes jump through just to get to the base of a climb are much more intense than if we saw them doing a 20-minute max in training. With that in mind, the below can teach us about Matteo’s form at l’Avenir, as well as the race demands of l’Avenir.
I get the most value from looking at the power numbers to try and determine how a result transpired. Was it due to a new peak power? Perhaps it was an improvement in fatigue resistance, but not raw power? Maybe the power shows that it actually all occurred well within previous physical performances, but tactics, mentality, or even luck made the difference? With this perspective we learn from the numbers and use them to shape training for the future as well.
There are a lot of quantifiable aspects of a race. I like to keep it simple and try to tie it back to actionable items in training or racing. Here are some numbers jumped out at me from stages one through six at Tour de l’Avenir:
Best Power Pre-Avenir vs Avenir
- 5 min = 519w (7.3 w/kg, training) v. 456w (6.4 w/kg, Avenir St. 5)
- 20 min = 396w (5.6, RAIT St. 3) v. 411w (5.8, Avenir St. 5)
- 3 hr = 282w (3.97, RAIT St. 3 – total stage = 4.5h @ 282w) v. 314w (4.4, Avenir St. 6 – total stage = 4h @ 315w)
Given the new peaks in 20 minute power and three hour power, to me there is some clear evidence that Matteo was on a new physical level. We can also see that his best 5 min from the whole race was nothing new. There is nothing to say that if he’d done a maximum 5 min power test it would not have been a 5 min record, but that was not the demand of the race.
The volumes of intensity in this race were massive. My takeaway to apply to training is that for this race, his raw five-minute power was not a rate-limiting factor in performance, and it’s not an area we need to hugely focus preparation on. His ability to tolerate a high volume of intensity is critical; anaerobic work capacity can be another catch-phrase for that concept.
Stages 7-8: Confidence
Matteo: On the rest day, we rode from our new home base in Meribel. At a certain point in the ride, as the other guys started to do efforts, my teammate Riley and I hung back. I joked, “this is gonna be you and me tomorrow, getting shelled on that first climb.” It had been our running joke over the first week of the race, but I also said it with a certain amount of seriousness. I was mindful that there could be a point where my increasing form would stop and the cracks in my base fitness would show.
I could picture the moment when the little Colombian and French climbers would just dance away from me.
Fortunately, stair-stepping Stage 7 saw me feeling good. I even hit the front on the second-to-last climb and cut the group down. It wasn’t cold either; the summer weather had returned. After ending a hard turn, I pulled off onto the descent I looked back at the damage I had done. I might be able to climb with the small guys after all, I thought.
Stage 8 was a different beast. Unlike a lot of the teams, we had gotten a look at the HC Col de la Loze climb a few weeks earlier, so we knew it was nasty. When we lined up that morning, in the much-hyped “grid-start,” I remembered that recon ride: namely paper-boying at 350 watts and just barely moving on one of the 25% pitches. I could picture the moment when the little Colombian and French climbers would just dance away from me.
I was right. Champoussin attacked at 7k to go, where the road turned basically into a paved mountain bike trail. In fact, the path was paved only weeks before the race, and it pitched and twisted with the mountain in sharp contrast to the predictably-graded roads of the ski resorts in the Alps.
It was survival mode for us, and we turned to our power meters, making sure we were never too far above threshold. We were both dropped initially as the pace surged and the little guys started to fly.
I watched Champoussin climb away, with the signature out of-the-saddle technique I had seen many times that year. The Colombians and other pure climbers tried to follow and suddenly the race became every man for themself. From that point on, it was far too steep to get any draft.
The Norwegian leader, Foss, and I each rode our own pace; it was survival mode for us, and we turned to our power meters, making sure we were never too far above threshold. We were both dropped initially as the pace surged and the little guys started to fly, but one by one we rode through nearly everyone. At 3k to go I was shown a two-minute gap to Champoussin, but finished just behind him in fourth. The brutal climb rewarded patience and pacing. I even held off Foss, the new race leader, moving myself into second in GC, as well as the Green points jersey.
Key numbers from Stages 7 & 8:
- 20 min @ 2000+ kJ = 396w (5.6 w/kg, 2800 kJ, RAIT St. 3) v. 371w (5.2 w/kg, 2200 kJ, Av. St. 7)
- 60 min = 343w (4.8 w/kg, RAIT St. 3) v. 374w (5.3 w/kg, Av St. 8)
Nate: The key number from Stage 7 is the 20 min @ 2000+ kJ. This captures the most selective climbs of the stage. One could draw the conclusion that Matteo’s performance was nothing new, given that his best 2000+ kJ 20 min power from the stage is 25w below his previous best under similar circumstances. But, in my opinion that makes the mistake of ignoring the context in which the power occurs.
Matteo’s best 20 min @ 2000+ kJ of l’Avenir (371w) occurred on two back-to-back climbs with a descent in the middle, whereas his best from earlier was from a constant climb. In other words, the number from Stage 7 is a bit deflated from what he may have been capable of, but still captures the ability to produce in the critical moment of the stage under fatigue.
Competing for the GC necessitates more than raw w/kg; it also demands clearing that bar multiple days in a row, and often late into each day.
Looking at Matteo’s peak 60 min power, it is a big improvement from his previous best. It is important to note that at l’Avenir the average elevation of the peak 60 min was 1400 meters, so we can also expect there was some power detriment due to altitude in the second half of the effort. With that in mind, the gap to his previous best was even larger than it appears.
Going into Tour de l’Avenir, one of the big questions Matteo and I both had was if targeting a top 5 in result in the GC was a realistic goal. We both wondered if he could push the raw w/kg necessary to compete with the best climbers on 30+ minute climbs. But competing for the GC necessitates more than raw w/kg; it also demands clearing that bar multiple days in a row, and often late into each day. In Stage 8 we got a very clear answer on if Matteo could meet that demand. We didn’t have a big body of historic performances to go on, so that was a big takeaway from this race.
Stages 9-10: Reality
Matteo: 20 hours after riding high on the Col de Loze, I was on the ropes. It was a scorching day and as we descended off the first climb of the stage, my eyes bounced between the road and the heart rate on my Garmin: my HR didn’t seem to be dropping as quickly as the road was.
As we started up the next climb I grabbed a bottle through the feed zone and dumped it over my head, to no avail. My HR continued to climb along with my RPE. It started to feel anaerobic despite power well under threshold. As we made a left onto a super steep gravel climb, I began to drift through the group and eventually the cars: I was maxxed with my HR increasing and my power decreasing, something you never want to see.
We started up the final climb to Tignes and I was crawling. Dropped riders were coming by and looking at me confused. Mike pulled up next to me in the car and just looked at my face for a second. He then said simply, “you did everything right buddy, you did everything right”. I lost a devastating 18 minutes on that final 20k climb. When I finished, I was whisked away to the podium ceremony where all the rest of the leaders were forced to wait for me. Mid-interview on Eurosport it hit me what had just happened and I even broke into tears.
Overnight my entire attitude changed from the no-pressure underdog to the high-pressure leader.
The evening prior, my mindset had changed in a big way. My performance on the Col de Loze had garnered some attention from WT teams and managers, and personally I was really proud of it. Overnight my entire attitude changed from the no-pressure underdog to the high-pressure leader. Who knows how much the mental side had to do with it, but I remember feeling high-strung that next morning, and carried a nervous energy that I hadn’t felt since Stage three.
Stage 10, I was back to my old underdog attitude, but this time with a nice touch of defeat. I was wearing the green jersey but with just a one-point lead over race leader Foss, I assumed I would lose it. I didn’t have the legs to defend it, and was again distanced on the final climb in the heat. I rode hard all the way to the line, but was just happy to finish the race, a good ways down. Foss had won one point in the stage, and tied me in the Green jersey competition, but with no top three finishes he lost the tie breaker and I got to wear the jersey onto the final podium: a welcome consolation prize after a rollercoaster of a bike race.
Nate: I like to think I am pretty objective when it comes to looking at a performance, but I really felt for Matteo: the final two days did not play out the way we would have hoped. That said, it is usually a good sign when disappointment occurs because expectations changed mid-race, based on an athlete exceeding the initial expectations and doubts. We went into the race not really knowing what was possible, so the first thing on my mind was not “what went wrong?” but to try and clarify what efforts Matteo would have needed to hold onto a top-five GC in the last two days.
If we believe that Matteo could have done the necessary performances if he’d done his previous bests, the question then becomes what kept him from matching his previous bests?
Looking at the climbing times and speed (VAM) of the top-5 riders (thank you Strava) in the final two days I was able to make some rough calculations on what power Matteo would have needed to stay in the top five. I am more than happy to admit there is room for error in all those calculations—my goal was not to be absolutely precise but to get a general takeaway benchmark.
On a simple level, Matteo would have needed to push ~5.5 w/kg for 20-35 min on the final climbs of stages nine and 10. Ignoring fatigue within the stage race, are those numbers Matteo is capable of? Given that his best 20 min w/kg @ 2000+ kJ (data above) was 5.6 w/kg, I think that those are performances Matteo is capable of. OK great, my simple takeaway here is that he didn’t get dropped because the top five riders were climbing at a speed he is not capable of.
So if we believe that Matteo could have done the necessary performances if he’d done his previous bests, the question then becomes what kept him from matching his previous bests?
In a lot of ways I think this question sounds kind of stupid, because for me the gap between what we might believe is possible from a power file and what happens in a race is the essential romance of racing. An athlete is often capable of feats on paper, well before they are capable of executing those feats in competition—with a good bit of grey area between the two timepoints.
My goal isn’t to eliminate the grey area, because athletes aren’t robotic. Just because someone did something once, doesn’t mean they will do it again or do it in a different context. My wife lets me know this all the time when she makes fun of my pure love for musical one-hit wonders: they crushed it once, but never really did it again.
That said, in Matteo’s case we can tease out some specific items that limited performance, which can give us ideas on how to change our process for the future. The average temperature of stages 5, 6, and 7 was 17 degrees Celsius. The average temperature of stages 8, 9, and 10 was 30 degrees Celsius. That is a pretty clear difference, and we’d already seen some evidence in the lead up to l’Avenir that Matteo suffered some real impairment in the heat. Matteo had a great day on Stage 8, but given it was only an hour, the heat didn’t impair Matteo’s performance.
What I wanted to do is quantify, in a way, where that tipping point in fatigue tolerance within the stage race occurred.
I believe it is fair to say that heat was a factor in losing time in stage 9 and 10, but I also don’t think it was the only factor, and maybe not even the primary factor. If Matteo had past experience in 10-day races without any performance detriment in the final days and now he did, I’d feel more confident isolating it to the heat. But given he has no track record it would be naïve to ignore the fact that when doing 10 days of vigorous exercise humans get tired.
What I wanted to do is quantify, in a way, where that tipping point in fatigue tolerance within the stage race occurred. I have problems with quantifying load solely by TSS, but it can give us a rough idea of what an athlete is going through. I looked at the TSS of the race, as well as the peak 4-day TSS of the race and where those fell. (I settled on peak four-day TSS because Matteo hadn’t done any stage races longer than four days in 2019.)
- Avenir TSS = 2260
- Avg 218 TSS/race day (rest day removed from avg)
- Peak 7 day TSS = 1440 (including rest day)
- Peak 4 day TSS = 1111 (st. 3-6)
- Peak ATL during race = 192 (TSB -58, st. 6)
- Days @ 150+ ATL = 7 days in a row, 8 counting rest day (st. 4-10)
- RAIT TSS = 1206
- Avg 302 TSS/race day
- Peak 7 day TSS = 1433
- Essentially same as Avenir despite only 4 days racing
- Peak 4 day TSS = 1206 (st. 1-4)
- Peak ATL during race = 202 (TSB -51, St. 4)
- Days @ 150+ ATL = 3 days in a row (St. 2-4)
I still see a lot of grey area when I look at this, but one takeaway is that the four hardest days of l’Avenir (by TSS) occurred in the middle of the race. So it is possible that concentration of load was some sort of tipping point in fatigue. I like looking at the concentration of the TSS because it lets me speculate a bit along the lines of, was it just the fact that it was day nine, or if the final four days of the race had been the peak 4fourdays of TSS would it have been more manageable? I do not know if there is a good way to answer that, because it is all speculation.
We could just try to reel off 300 TSS days, but personally I think that as an athlete gets older and does more races, it gives them a trackable metric to see changes (or not) in.
My takeaway is to have an ongoing hypothesis that 1100-1200 TSS in 4 days is a concentration of load that after which Matteo’s performance will start to drop off.
We could train to that, and just try to reel off 300 TSS days, but personally I think that as an athlete gets older and does more races, it gives them a trackable metric to see changes (or not) in. For example, if in 2020 Matteo does 5 day stage races with 300 TSS / day for the first 4 days and is great on the 5th day then perhaps it’s a sign of improvement from his fatigue tolerance compared to 2019.
It all gets very much into an arena without many direct comparisons and in that way the numbers always will be somewhat flawed, but as I said I still find value in it as long as you realize it is not everything and may not even be the primary reason behind the drop in performance. Maybe it was heat? Maybe it had nothing to do with 1100-1200 TSS done in 4 days, but just 10 days of racing?
Unfortunately if you’ve read this long, I don’t have any exciting plans of new training methods to leave you with. The biggest method for Matteo in “closing the gap” to the race leaders is very simple: time. Given that this was Matteo’s first time in a race of this length, the performance was good, and having done this race just one time we can already expect an improvement for the future. Additionally, as his average training load increases with age and builds on what he has already done the gap will close.
Matteo: There are takeaways from every race I have ever done, but this Tour de l’Avenir left me something a bit more tangible and definitely more memorable. I now know that I need to approach each race and each race day as its own challenge. Yes, previous sensations, results and data are all important information on how I should approach the race tactically, but they shouldn’t affect how I approach it mentally.
I have a tendency to overthink and overanalyze, and this whole story is a clear example of how that can have a real impact. There was far too much inner dialogue about what I considered my form or fitness to be that didn’t ever translate into better results. Rather it often negatively impacted my self-confidence, which does ultimately have an impact on how I race. Cemented in my mind is that one moment before the turning point of stage 5, when I shed a lot of my personal anxiety and instead decided to just let it all play out. I race best when I just race.
My lesson out of all of this is I need to be as purposeful with how I expend my mental energy as I am with how I spend my physical energy.
Instead of trying to analyze my past preparation or to predict how it would translate into the race, I used my mental power to think tactically about the stage at hand, and it paid off. But after the breakaway on stage 5, I started to slip back into that mental space as I climbed the GC ladder and again began to doubt my preparation.
Stage nine’s disaster might have been purely physiological, or maybe I simply lacked appropriate depth or heat adaptation. Regardless, all that mental energy spent worrying about when I would crack, or if I could make it through to the last day definitely had a negative impact. If anything, it probably cost me energy throughout the race. My lesson out of all of this is I need to be as purposeful with how I expend my mental energy as I am with how I spend my physical energy.