Power analysis: What does it take to win the Melbourne-Warrnambool?

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It’s said that fortune favours the brave, and that’s exactly how Nathan Elliott made history this past weekend by winning the iconic Melbourne to Warrnambool for the second time in consecutive years. It’s a feat that has never been achieved in the 102 year old race. In this piece Nathan Elliott’s coach Mark Fenner of FTP Training outlines what it took to get him back on track after a nearly fatal vehicle collision, and an analysis of what the physiological requirements were to take the win of the historic Melbourne-Warrnambool.

The year has been incredibly tough for Nathan after a terrible accident in the hills around Adelaide on the 23rd of January which nearly ended his season. It could have been devastating as a 4×4 lost control in the wet as it traveled downhill and veered across the road to hit Nathan head on.

In this article we are going to look at some of the data from the race and what it took to win it. We will also look at some of Nathan’s historical data and track his return to form.

Returning to fitness after an accident like Nathan’s is tough both physically and mentally. As a coach, the application of the correct training load is vitally important: Ramp it up too much too soon and risk over-reaching and the possibility of getting sick. Ramp it up too slowly and never quite get back to the condition needed to race to your potential before getting into a race/recover pattern gradually losing condition.

After a period of three weeks after his accident Nathan was able to return to some ergo work, but with all the metal work protruding from his wrist it was really just a matter of turning the legs over to make sure no sweat go onto the area to cause possible infection. After this we could start to increase the quality of the work completed on the ergo, but it was still eight weeks before Nathan could get out for his first ride on the road. This is where things get interesting in terms of loading, as Nathan was super fresh and has an enormous capacity to handle a substantial increase in training load each week.

Nathan’s first race back was in May at the Grafton-Inverell and then the final build towards a European race block. This was followed by a short break and then the rebuild towards the main objective of the year – the Melbourne to Warrnambool, or ‘The Warny’ as it’s affectionately known. With a solid block of European racing under his belt as well as the Tour of China, he was in good form and on track for the Warny.

It takes a special type of physiology to win big one day races like the Warny which means the athlete has to have the capacity to hit big numbers after 5000Kj of work with very little degradation in power over time. This was especially true in this year’s Warny as the pace was high right from the start to establish the early break.

Overall race data

Click the chart to view the larger detail.

In summary: breaking down the race

Threshold power: 400watts
Aggressive start: 45 minutes at 350 watts (ave)
Establishing the break: 25 minutes at 381 watts (ave)
Main breakaway swap-off: 2h:50m at 287 watts (ave)
Small recovery, break not working: 1h at 249 watts (ave)
Away in a break again with Ryan Cavanagh (NSWIS): 35 minutes at 313 watts (ave)
Break is caught and attacks are flying: 1hr:11m at 230 watts (ave)

In the above ride graph from Today’s Plan I have broken the race up into the main periods that defined it and then in the final graph focused in on the final 7km. I have used 60 second smoothing in the first chart to make the data easier to interpret and then gone to 1 second blow by blow detail for the end of the race. The green line shows power and the blue line cadence.

The initial 45 minutes of the race Nathan averaged 350 watts at 4.5 watts/kg and an average speed of 45km/h. After getting into the move with a quality bunch of riders the next 25 minutes the power needed to establish the break was 380 watts nearly 5 watts/kg this represents 95% of Nathans current threshold.

Over the course of the next 3 hours it is clear to see the break played a game of cat and mouse with the main bunch. This was a dangerous group of riders was never allowed to extend the lead out to more than 5 minutes in this period. The power during this main breakaway can be seen to rise and fall according to the time gaps that were given to the peloton. A breakaway manages their efforts according to the efforts behind and when the peloton easies up the break can ease up.

There is another effort by the group at around the 130km mark, but by 153km the riders start to sit on and the cohesion of the break starts to go. This is just after 190km where Nathan goes away with Cavanagh for a further 35 minutes at 313 watts. With the peloton breathing down their necks Nathan and Ryan sit up and are caught around the 215km mark and then the attacks start to happen.

The next 55km is defined by large spikes in wattage followed by recover and freewheeling as attack after attack tries to get away. It is also clear to see that cadence drops here as well with longer periods of freewheeling and recovery/following wheels. It was an extremely important during this phase of the race for Nathan to recover as much as possible and prepare for the final throws of the race.

2017 Melbourne – Warrnambool race highlights

Here it is again shown more simply, but with more detail:

The final seven kilometers

At just over 269km Nathan broke away with Tom Robinson. This attack had a peak power of 1232 watts and for the next 6 minutes and 27 seconds the guys put their heads down. Other riders tried to come across to the pair, but never made it. You can see that about half way through this effort Nathan begins to play his cards and starts to sit on. In racing you must be prepared to lose to win, and Nathan let Tom do the most work in the final throws of the race, risking getting caught be the peloton, but enough to recover which allowed him to attack on the final rise before the finish. This was the same place he hit Robbie Hucker, Pat Lane and Ayden Toovey last year to win, so he knew it was the crux move of the race.

Just before this there is another big effort to break away, but the move that stuck came on the final rise. This attack maxed out at 1162 watts with 36 seconds at 653 watts. The final 2 minutes and 19 seconds to the finish Nathan held nearly his threshold power at 391 watts to hold off the chasing peloton for the win.

Click the chart to view in larger detail

There you have it. I hope this gives you a glimpse into the numbers involved with winning this iconic Australian Classic and the preparation that went into it in the months before. Quite often an injury at the beginning of the season is a blessing in disguise which allows an athlete to perform at a much higher level at the end of the season.

About the author: Mark Fenner is Head Coach, Director and founder of FTP Training and Today’s Plan. He coaches many professional athletes at the highest level (including the High Performance Director at IsowheySports Swisswellness pro cycling team) as well as anyone looking to improve.

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