7 Takeaways from the 2019 Axel Merckx Gran Fondo

Yesterday I competed in the the 2019 Prospera Granfondo Axel Merckx Okanagan. This was a 160 km bike race down in Penticton. One year old and I was able to set a personal best. There are a few things that allowed me to set a best time. And some things I will definitely change for next year. Either way below are 8 Takeaways from the 2019 Prospera Granfondo Axel Merckx Okanagan.

First I’ll cover the things that I believe helped me have a great ride. Next I’ll get in to some things I wanted to work on and improve. And lastly I’ll touch on a few general observations from the race.

  1. Investing and spending time on the trainer – Last winter I bought a trainer. And I set a goal to commit to two rides per week for training. If I achieved three rides, great. But I didn’t want to plan for three and then be getting two days consistently. This schedule worked and I was able to make those appointments from December until March. Once the snow melted and I got the bike on the ride it didn’t feel like I was starting from square one. My legs and lungs felt good and I was more comfortable in the saddle.
  2. Riding on vacation – In the spring we like to go away with the family somewhere warm. The past few years we have some cruises through the Caribbean but this year we went to Kona aka the birthplace of Ironman. Now I know you’re probably thinking. “Chris, you just set up your family trip so you get in some riding”. And honestly I didn’t plan it that way. And it was really a last minute decision to bring my bike to the island. But what a great decision. I was able to take my training to the next level and explore Hawaii in a way I hadn’t done before. All in I got about 550 km in the legs during the trip.
  3. New ride – Investing a Trek Emonda sure helped yesterday. Upgraded components, a stiffer carbon frame and disc brakes all helped at various times during the race. That being said it was really cool to see a few people riding old classic during the race yesterday. I’m talking about shifters on the frame, platform pedals, standard wheels and brakes and definitely not rocking aero frame. Not for me as I need every advantage I can get but respect to those that can pull it off.
  4. A solid strength training base – I’m not the best on the hills but I’m better than most. And I attribute my ability to ride well uphill due to the strength training I do in the gym. Squats, lunges and deadlifts improve cycling economy and efficiency by up to 7%. In other words, if a climb were to normally take 5 minutes it’s possible to shave 21 seconds off this ascent with the right strength program. Talk to me if you’d like help with this.
  5. Spinning – Cycling is an interesting sport. And the more I get into it the more I learn how much technique and strategy are involved. For example, I used to think about really grinding out heavy gears to try and get up to and maintain top speed. Over the years watching others and with my own efforts I’ve learned that spinning is a way better alternative. It really comes down to inertia, momentum and respecting energy thresholds. When you’re in motion and riding with a strong pack it can almost become effortless to ride with a  fast moving pack. You save up to 30% of your energy riding in a peleton compared to cutting through the wind without support. And maintaining a consistent cadence and speed also helps save energy. Imagine someone pushing a heavy gear and approaches a hill. As they ascend the hill their cadence drops significantly as does their speed. They stand up out of the saddle and try and hammer their way up. Pretty soon their legs are barely turning over and now they’re scrambling to shift to an easier gear.
  6. Don’t follow heroes – With this last point in mind I was consciously looking for people to ride with. I started out with 3 other friends and our group got split within the first km or so. So I was paying attention as to how I wanted to ride behind. What was the criteria? Well I wanted someone that was carrying descent speed and spinning (see previous point). I was paying attention to their body position and language. Were they quiet in the saddle? Was there minimal side to side sway? Were they set comfortably on the horns of the handlebars? Were they riding intelligently in a pack? Because I didn’t need to be following any heroes. And by this I mean someone that was all over the place with their riding. Increasing and decreasing speed constantly and not settling into a consistent speed with the pack.
Finish line photo. Putting on a brave face but dealing with severe cramps.

Finish line photo. Putting on a brave face but dealing with severe cramps.

And while I made some good decisions and am pleased to have done my best during the race there are  a few things to change or improve for next time.

  1. Double check everything – Earlier in the week I charged up my Garmin. Once it was fully charged I unplugged it from the wall and set it on my dresser. I didn’t want to use it during the week so the battery wouldn’t be drained on race day. But I forgot to pull the cable out of the unit. I guess this acted as a slow battery leak because on race day my computer wouldn’t turn on. It was dead. It was not fun riding blind. I didn’t know my speed or power outputs. And every 30 or 40 kilometres there might be a marker on the side of the road telling the distance. I just had to make sure to keep my head up or I’d miss the marker. I’m sure I missed a couple And I did use my wristwatch to check the time periodically but it would have been nice to see all the numbers displayed for my on my handlebars. I won’t make this mistake again.
  2. Don’t change anything – Size is an interesting topic when it comes to sports. In some sports I have the right proportions and should dominate. I haven’t discovered this sport yet but I’m sure it’s out there. And once I discover it, watch out world! For other sports, i.e. sumo wrestling, I would be on the smallest end of the spectrum. And for cycling I might carry a few extra pounds compared to the pros. One estimate is that pros might weigh 2 lbs for every inch of height. So a 6 foot rider (72 inches) would weigh 144 lbs. At 5’10” this puts me at 140 lbs  whereas I normally will sit around 185 lbs. I thought I would close the gap and try and drop some weight before the race. I reduced portions size the week prior and drank 2 cups of water before every meal. This seemed to be working as I could down to 173 lbs with 5 days until the race. Seeing the weight come off and hearing the positive feedback from others encouraged me to continue with this practice and even increase it a little bit. I believe I was over-hydrated come race day. So much so that I diluted the remaining salt concentration in my body enough to induce severe cramping. It started with my calves. And I tried to distract myself and say “It’s just your calves telling you how strong they are” haha. Later my adductors, hamstrings and low back didn’t want to be left out and they were letting me know how strong they were as well. This was tough. My fitness was there. The bike was riding great. The weather was ideal. And my lower body was shutting down on me. I didn’t want to quit and I still wanted to do my best. I thought of my family at the finish line. I thought of soldiers that say ’embrace the suck’. And I thought I’m not going to drink so much water the week before next time.
  3. Work on Sprinting/Speed – In team sports, i.e. hockey, football, basketball, soccer, there are benefits to increasing top end speed. And as top end, or maximal speed, improves every point on the speed continuum improves. In other words, increasing top end speed makes an athlete faster at every point when  they build up speed from start, acceleration, transition and maximal speed. I believe the same would be true with cycling. But I didn’t speed any time working on my maximal speed when out cycling. Instead I got in the volume and I didn’t some hills. And that was about it. Next time I will be lining with a better top end speed.

While cycling is one person on a bike it is far from an individual sport. There are a number of people to thank and acknowledge for a great day yesterday including:

Jim McKitrick – Jim arranged for me to stay at the best address in Penticton. His mom has a beautiful condo in Penticton that is literally right next door to the starting line. Had we not had this available to us it would have meant getting up at 4 am in Kelowna to drive down for the race. The extra 90 minutes sleep were golden.

Maryann – Jim’s mom was so accommodating and hospitable. It was great to hang out and get to know her on Saturday evening. She even picked up a bunch of treats for us to snack on and take for the race.

Vanessa Harris – She saved me at the finish line. I was seizing and cramping but trying to put on a brave face. She worked out the cramps and gave me some immediate relief. If you’re looking for a great massage therapist let me know and I’ll connect you.

Will Pratt – Not only did Will set me up with a new bike for the event he even serviced and tuned it up. They even cleaned it for me as well. If you’re down in the South Okanagan stop in and take a bike for a ride. They’ve got everything.

Greg DuManoir – I wouldn’t do this race alone. And I also wouldn’t do it with just anyone. Three years in a row riding with Greg is a blast. And I hope there are many more to come. Thanks for the lift down to Penticton and the laughs.

Alexandra, Olivia and Evangeline – Knowing these 3 were at the finish line was like a magnet pulling me to them. They girls draw up some awesome posters (that I’ll save forever) and I love hearing them yell “Go Underpants” as I ride by. I know a day will come when they don’t want to wake up early to go watch their dad race so I enjoy each and every one of these will they do.

Take Home Message

If you’re a cyclist hopefully some of these points will help you. But even if you’re not you can apply the information to a variety of sports and competitive events. Put in the work. Study the sport. Build your team. Plan ahead. Embrace the suck (when challenges arise). Win and/or learn. And remember your why. This will move you to another level and allow to forge ahead when you want to ease up or quit.


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