What it takes to win a nationals road race

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On Saturday afternoon Gracie Elvin became the first woman in 20 years to win back-to-back titles at the Australian national championships road race. In this piece Helen Kelly from Kelly Cycle Coaching analyses Gracie’s power file from the race and considers what it takes to win a national championship road race.

First up, here are some stats on Gracie’s ride:

Race duration: 3 hours 3 minutes
Distance: 102km
Average speed: 32.8km/h
Climbing done: 1,557m
Temperature range: 25-31 degrees C
Work done: 2,093kJ
Maximum heartrate: 196bpm
Average heartrate: 165bpm
Average power: 191 watts
Normalised power: 248 watts
Training Stress Score: 258
Intensity Factor: 0.92

Here are some explanations for the final three of those stats:

Normalised power is a more realistic and accurate representation of the rider’s workload in the race than average power. Normalised power adjusts average power to take into account how frequently and by how much a rider lifted their power above their threshold power. In essence, Gracie held 248 watts for just over three hours.

Training Stress Score (TSS) is a measure of how hard the effort was compared to the rider’s threshold. If Gracie had done an hour-long max effort she would get a TSS of 100 and an Intensity Factor (IF) of 1.00. Gracie’s road race performance shows she held 92% of her threshold power for the duration of the race.

The orange line shows the course's elevation, the yellow line shows Gracie's  wattage, the red line is her heartrate and the blue line is her speed.
The orange line shows the course’s elevation, the yellow line shows Gracie’s wattage, the red line is her heartrate and the blue line is her speed.

How the race unfolded

For a blow-by-blow of how the race played out, check out Tiff Cromwell’s great report from inside the race. As Tiff’s report shows, Gracie’s win was far from a simple case of sticking with the leaders and sprinting to victory — she attacked solo, lead the race with Lisa Jacobs, got caught by the bunch, got dropped on the climb, caught back on and then sprinted to victory.

We’ve tried to break down each of those decisive moments according to Gracie’s power profile.

Attacking solo to reach the lone leader, Lisa Jacobs

Gracie attacked the bunch as they reached the top of the climb for the sixth time, with four laps to go. She said later:

“As we crested the climb I saw a good moment and I took advantage of it. Everyone had just sat up to assess who was still there. The pace slowed, and I put my cards on the table earlier than I had wanted. It was a bit of a gamble, but it felt right.”

Gracie’s attack saw her produce 606W at 83rpm. This ability to develop power at a low cadence was something Gracie had been specifically including in her training in the lead up to nationals.

In bridging across to Lisa Jacobs, the lone reader on the road, Gracie produced her best five-minute (309W), 10-minute (290W) and 20-minute effort (264W) for the race. This 20-minute effort saw Gracie average 85rpm and 33.1km/h, with an average heartrate of 185bpm.

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Gracie reached Jacobs within three laps of the finish and after riding together for a lap or so, Jacobs fell off the pace and was caught by the remaining peloton at the start of the penultimate climb.

Gracie pushed on alone and was eventually caught by a small bunch of the remaining favourites at the top of the penultimate climb.

Getting dropped on the final climb

After rolling a lap with the reduced peloton, Gracie got dropped on the final climb. At the moment she got dropped she was holding 290W (roughly 20W above threshold after nearly three hours of racing) at a cadence of 77rpm while her heartrate was 187bpm.

Her speed up this top section of the climb was 22.6km/h — not high enough to avoid getting dropped by the likes of Katrin Garfoot, Tiff Cromwell and Miranda Griffiths.

Catching back on to the lead group with Lauren Kitchen

After cresting the climb behind the leaders, Gracie followed Lauren Kitchen as the latter attempted to bridge across. Even though she was letting Lauren do most of the work, Gracie had to lift her power output to 730W.

She averaged 103rpm in an attempt to follow Kitchen back to the leaders, gaining power from leg speed at this late stage in the race. She averaged 45.9km/h on the backside of the course and regained contact with the leaders. Her heartrate hit 194bpm during this last fight to get back on.

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Sprinting for the win

After regaining contact with the leaders, Gracie took a moment to compose herself before winding up her final sprint in a bid to win the race.

Leading into the final sprint Gracie’s speed was 42km/h. She was soft-pedalling at this stage and only putting out 115W at 72rpm. But as you might expect, Gracie did a 5-second, 10-second, 20-second and 30-second best power effort when it came to the business end of the sprint.

Her first jump on the pedals saw her power jump to 507W, but then she paused for a few seconds in which time her power dropped to 33W. She then jumped hard and over five seconds her power went from 897W (52km/h) to a maximum of 1016W (58.5km/h).

Interestingly, although her power dropped from 1016W to 930W over the final five seconds of her sprint, she was able to increase her speed from 58.5km/h to a top speed of 61.9km/h. This is due to the momentum she gained when coming off the wheel in front.

Gracie’s max cadence during her 19-second sprint was 110rpm and her heart rate hit 194bpm. Her peak power/weight for her finishing sprint was 15.6 W/kg.

A graph showing Gracie's power (top), heart rate (middle) and cadence (bottom) during the 19 seconds of her final sprint.
A graph showing Gracie’s power (top), heart rate (middle) and cadence (bottom) during the 19 seconds of her final sprint.

The graph above shows the spike in Gracie’s power as she started her sprint, and the gradual drop off of power as she accelerated past Kitchen to take the win.

As expected her heart rate continued to rise throughout the sprint, as she applied maximum effort.

Gracie’s cadence started low as she was in the bunch and jostling for position. She lifted her cadence quickly to 110rpm which she maintained throughout the sprint.

This composite image shows Gracie's power distribution graph (left, in yellow), speed profile (top right, blue) and cadence profile (bottom-right, green). All three graphs are explained below.
This composite image shows Gracie’s power distribution graph (left, in yellow), speed profile (top right, blue) and cadence profile (bottom-right, green) for the race. All three graphs are explained below.

Speed profile

The blue graph in the top-right of the image above shows Gracie’s speed profile for the race. On such an undulating circuit, her speed varied from as low as 6km/h to a maximum speed of 70.2km/h. Her average speed for the race was 32.8km/h.

Cadence profile

Average cadence: 80rpm
Max cadence: 128rpm

Gracie spent a lot of time (37% of the race) in the 80-90rpm range. She spent about 20% of her race between 70-80rpm and a similar amount of time at 90-100rpm. Her peak cadence of 128rpm was at the 56-minute mark, as she came through the start/finish at 65.4km/h, at the completion of lap 3.

Power Distribution Graph

Gracie’s power distribution graph (left in the image above) suggests that her threshold power is somewhere between 270-300W, as after 300W there is a significant step down in the time she was able to hold the higher power.

Athletes can certainly hold well above their threshold when climbing and sprinting, but not for the time that they are able to hold their anaerobic threshold wattages (the definition of anaerobic threshold being what an athlete can hold for one hour).

Gracie’s power distribution graph shows that in the race she spent:

  • 43 minutes producing less than 50W, free-wheeling and saving energy
  • 41 minutes at 200W or below. This is Gracie’s E2 power zone so she spent nearly half of the three-hour race (84 minutes) at E2 and below, saving energy for the business end of the race.
  • 26 minutes at 200-250W
  • 36 minutes at 250-300W (in her anaerobic threshold range)
  • 37 minutes in the red zone (above her anaerobic threshold, but sustainable in small amounts)
This graph shows Gracie's power output over the course of the race (yellow line), plotted with the course's elevation (red line).
This graph shows Gracie’s power output over the course of the race (yellow line), plotted with the course’s elevation (red line).

The graph above shows how much work Gracie did above her threshold. The first dotted gridline in the graph represents 300W and as you can see, Gracie regularly went above her threshold, particularly on the Mt. Buninyong climb.

This highlights the need to prepare the body for repeated efforts above threshold, and then to be able to pull out a sprint, where needed, after more than 100km of racing and 1,500m of tough climbing.

This ride is a testament to her preparation and the benefit of having teammates there to cover moves and protect her from using up energy unnecessarily.

There’s little doubt Gracie raced a smart race and has earned the honour of taking the green and gold jersey to Europe for another year.

About the author

Helen Kelly and her husband Bob run Kelly Cycle Coaching. Both are certified level 2 cycling coaches and Helen has raced professionally all over the world and represented Australia at the world championship level.

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