By the numbers: What does it take to be competitive at the cobbled semi-classics?

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Spring Classics season got underway last weekend with two races in the Flanders region of Belgium: Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne. While not the biggest of the Spring Classics, these one-day ‘semi-classics’ are still very demanding in their own right.

Stephen Gallagher is a former Irish pro who raced both Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne in his time and is the co-founder of global coaching company, Dig Deep Coaching. In this post, Stephen dives into the rider data to see what it takes to be competitive at these semi-Classics while explaining how the efforts of the pros compare to what us mere mortals are capable of.


Omloop Het Nieuwsblad

The 2017 edition of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad finished in a similar way to 2016 with Greg Van Avermaet winning and Peter Sagan second. But the racing and the strategy used for the victory were different this time around. Various splits and breakaways throughout the day saw the three strongest riders left to fight it out with a sprint to the line.

Many riders tried to get in the early break to escape the madness of the peloton and forge a gap before the main players took central stage. The main break of the day was formed after 55km before the first climb of Leberg. Lithuanian Gediminas Bagdonas (Ag2r-La Mondiale) was there and he forced the pace with his companions in this early part of the race.

On the climb of the Leberg Bagdonas produced 430W (5.51 W/kg) for just over one minute and then only 4km later hit the Berendries climb with gradients over 12% and produced a very painful 465W (5.96 W/kg), for 2:20.

This section of climbing featured in Bagdonas’ peak 20-minute power for the day: 380W (4.87 W/kg) at an average speed of 39km/h on the twisty and undulating roads of Flanders. Bagdonas’ final normalised power* for the entire race was 346W (4.42 W/kg) for nearly five hours of racing. His efforts to gain a place in the early break saw him finish in a solid 24th place.

One of the riders that attacked with 75km left was Andrey Grivko (Astana), who upped the pace to try and gain advantage with two other riders on the fast decent into Ronse. Grivko was in the hurt locker with his fellow escapes on the Kruisberg climb when he produced 401W (5.81 W/kg) on the 1.8km, 4% ascent for 3:52. With a slender lead over the bunch, Grivko again put in a big effort on the 600 meters of the Taaienberg to try and stay away from the favourites.

Here he produced an average of 489W (7.1 W/kg) for 1:31, maxing out at 794W (11.5 W/kg) as he hit the lower slopes of the climb.

By contrast, Timo Roosen, who completed the climb 10 seconds quicker in the bunch, had to produce an average of 599W (7.81 W/kg) for 1:20, maxing out at an eye-watering 1,105W (14.4 W/kg) at the very bottom of the climb as they accelerated out of the corner before hitting the steeper slops. The ability to hit high neuromuscular power figures and then follow that up with a maximal VO2 max effort is one of the true requirements of Flemish Classics racing.

With the selection of riders narrowed after the Taaienberg, it was left to the final climbs to shape the breakaway. With the high pace being set by Peter Sagan on the Wolvenberg, riders such as Oliver Naesen (Ag2r-La Mondiale), who went on to finish seventh, fought hard and hit out at 657W (8.86 W/kg) for 40 seconds on the slopes of the Wolvenberg. Adrien Petit (Direct Energie) pushed out 559W (7 W/kg) for 44 seconds to stay in contention.

The selections continued to merge as Sagan again forced the pace on the Haaghoek cobbles when he joined the lead group. On this section Naesen averaged a swift 53 km/h at 423W (5.7 W/kg), this was matched by race-winner Greg Van Avermaet who averaged 54 km/h and maxed out at 60 km/h on this stretch of cobbles.

The final showdown took place on the Molenberg. Van Avermaet was quickly on Sep Vanmarcke’s wheel when the Cannondale-Drapac rider accelerated from the bottom to reduce the nine-rider lead group to just three, with Peter Sagan bridging across.

The chasing group behind Van Avermaet consisted of Adrien Petit, Oliver Naesen and Andriy Grivko. Both Petit and Naesen completed the climb in 1:04 (one second quicker than eventual winner Van Avermaet) with Petit producing 510W (6.4 W/kg) and Naesen doing 549W (7.4 W/kg) to stay in the game on the Molenberg climb.

In the final run into the finish, Vanmarcke, Sagan and Van Avermaet proved too strong for the chasers. The trio stayed away to the line with Van Avermaet taking the win.

Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne

Kuurne was another day of hard racing on similar roads to those used by Omloop Het Nieuwsblad a day earlier. With 12 climbs on the route and the last climb some 60km from the finish line, Kuurne is often seen as a race for the sprinters who can also mix it in the Classics style of racing. Riders such as Tom Boonen (three wins) have dominated in the past, so too Mark Cavendish with two wins.

This by no means makes it an easier race than Omloop — it’s just that the race tactics can be a little different to at Omloop.

The pace was high from the off, with the bunch averaging 48.5 km/h in the first hour. Looking at the data of Tom Van Asbroeck (Cannondale-Drapac), who eventually went on to finish 19th, he had an average power of 279W (3.72 W/kg) for the first hour. With 3.5 hours of racing still to go this was a hard way to start the race.

It wasn’t until the 70km mark that the first meaningful break was forged and some calm was brought back to the main peloton. The nine-man break was to stay clear for nearly 100km of the race and included one of the younger members of the professional peloton, Maxime Farazijn (Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise), son of the famous ex-pro Peter Farazijn.

Looking at Maxime’s data we can see that for the 10 minutes in which the break was formed, he averaged 390W (5.34 W/kg). This included the Onkerzelestraat climb which he passed over in 4:20, averaging 419W (5.74 W/kg).

For Farazijn to maintain his position in the lead breakaway for two-and-a-half hours, here’s what he had to do:

Average speed: 39.5 km/h
Average power: 300W
Normalised power: 350W (4.9 W/kg)

After this fantastic effort by the young rider, you might expect his legs to have dropped off when the break was caught by an elite group of favourites. Instead, Farazijn kept his position at the head of the race and finished just 19 seconds down on eventual winner Peter Sagan, in 53rd place.

The peloton was always going to play its hand over the climbs that littered the middle part of the race. Indeed, it was on the Oude Kwaremont with 85km to go that the splits started to appear thanks to aggressive riding from Zdenek Stybar (QuickStep Floors) and Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal). This caused a front group of around 20 riders to form as they accelerated over the top of the climb.

Here are some stats from the Oude Kwaremont cobbled section (1.4km @ 4%):

Rider
Climb time
Normalised power
Power-to-weight
Position
Maxime Farazijn
3:55
420W
5.38 W/kg
Lead breakaway
Oliver Naesen
3:44
429W
5.88 W/kg
Made lead group
Tom Van Asbroeck
4:00
421W
5.61 W/kg
Finished 19th
Bryan Coquard
4:00
370W
5.97 W/kg
Finished 29th
Greg Van Avermaet
3:44
NA
NA
Made lead group

After the Oude Kwaremont the race was split apart with a large, 20-rider group chasing down the original break with a smattering of groups behind, all within close proximity. With the finish circuits in sight, the leading break was caught and the final showdown began.

Many expected a large group sprint to the line but defending champion Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) had other ideas and forged ahead before being joined by four others, including eventual winner Peter Sagan. The group of 20 was only 30-40 seconds behind the five leaders and was being led by BMC who missed the break.

Behind that group was the remainder of the peloton, only 20-30 seconds behind the Avermaet group. This was being led by Katusha-Alpecin working for pre-race favourite Alexander Kristoff.

One of the main players helping Kristoff was Nils Politt. The German put in a mammoth effort in the last 25km on the finishing circuits, pulling hard at the front of the peloton. Politt pumped out 358W (4.48 W/kg) for those 25km, averaging 48.5 km/h. This was a big task after 175km of aggressive racing on very hard roads.

Eventual winner Peter Sagan outsprinted his breakaway companions to take his first victory of the year and cement his top spot at the list of favourites for the Spring Classics.

Some final stats from Kuurne on the overall efforts taken to complete the race:

Rider
Race time
Normalised power
Power-to-weight
Maxime Farazijn
4:38
333W
4.56 W/kg
Oliver Naesen
4:37
324W
4.44 W/kg
Tom Van Asbroeck
4:38
320W
4.27 W/kg
Bryan Coquard
4:38
261W
4.21 W/kg

How do these data relate to you?

When we look at this sort of information it’s sometimes hard to understand how it compares to competitive local cyclists or general cycling enthusiasts. The average ‘good’ racing cyclist who competes in A Grade or B Grade can do two- to four- minute efforts at up to 7 W/kg but what these elite level riders can do is complete these shorter and intensive efforts back-to-back.

If we look at Oliver Naesen’s ride at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and cut down the section of the race which consisted of the Kaperij, Eikenberg, Wolvenberg, Leberg, Molenberg and Leberg climbs, he completed this section in 45 minutes and averaged 347W (390W normalised; 5.34 W/kg). But in this he completed six large efforts which lasted between two and four minutes at 390W (5.34 W/kg) and 508W (6.96 W/kg).

So of the 45 minute section, Naesen has done roughly a third of it at around 6 W/kg. And before he started this section of climbing he had already done three hours at 245W average (3.36 W/kg).

The big difference between us mere mortals and those top world-class athletes is that they can perform at maximal intensity after already accumulating a lot of fatigue. They also have the ability to recover from above-threshold efforts, time after time.

In a standard A Grade criterium I see many of our coached athletes normalising 320-350W for one hour. In general this is around 4.4 to 4.8 W/kg. Compare this to Maxime Farazijn’s total ride at Kuurne in which he had a normalised power of 333W (4.56 W/kg), for 4 hours 38 minutes.

If we look at the total stress placed on the athletes who competed in both opening weekend races, we find some really staggering figures. For example, if we take both rides from Stijn Steel (Sport Vlaanderen–Baloise), who finished 66th on Saturday and 126th on Sunday, we see that between both races he averaged approximately 310W normalised. Accumulating this effort in a 48-hour period we see he spent nearly 10 hours at 310W normalised (~4 W/kg), burning almost 10,000kj.

Again, putting this into the context of local racing, we can say this is the equivalent of doing around 10, one-hour criteriums in A grade or B grade, all in the space of 48 hours!

For further context on all of these numbers, check out this table from training guru Andy Coggan and Training Peaks, showing where the pros fit in the grand scheme of things:

* To understand what normalised power is and how it differs from average power, this explanation at Training Peaks is worth reading. In short: normalised power “is an attempt to better quantify the physiological ‘cost’ of the harder ‘feel’ of the variable effort.”

The graphics in this post appear courtesy of VeloViewer and Philipp Diegner.

About Dig Deep Coaching

Dig Deep Coaching is a global coaching company that works with athletes of all levels across the following disciplines: road, track, cyclocross, MTB and triathlon. Whether you are taking part in your first ever gran fondo or aiming to compete in the professional peloton, Dig Deep Coaching can help you out. Get in touch via email or follow Dig Deep Coaching at Facebook and Twitter.

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