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If you’ve spent any time on Strava you’ll notice the same riders popping up again and again at the top of your local segment leaderboards. Often these riders are putting out world-class power numbers, and yet they’re a long way from being a professional racer. So why is that? Why don’t world class numbers on a Strava segment translate to racing success?
Zach Nehr is an exercise scientist and a Level 3 USA Cycling coach. In this article he takes a look at the difference between the efforts required for Strava segment-hunting, and those required as a pro cyclist.
In our modern technological age, Strava has taken over the lives of most cyclists, from the recreational to the serious, from amateurs to the pros. More than 45 million people have a Strava account, but most have never actually raced. That doesn’t mean Strava KOMs/QOMs aren’t taken as seriously as a race, however – skinsuits, lead-outs, ultra-light bikes, and a bit of tailwind … you cannot get a Strava KOM/QOM by accident nowadays.
After years of following other riders on Strava – from current pros to my mom and dad – I’ve noticed an interesting correlation, or lack thereof: Strava KOMs/QOMs don’t translate to race wins. It seems obvious that the fastest riders in a given area (i.e. holders of the most Strava KOMs/QOMs) would also be the fastest riders. If they are faster than everyone on Strava, wouldn’t they be faster than everyone in a race? Not quite.
There are a multitude of factors that explain why a Strava KOM/QOM won’t always translate to a race win, including physiology, bike setup, and weather conditions. Below, I turn my focus to the physiology of Strava segment-hunting, and why the strongest Strava riders are not always the best bike racers.
One-off Efforts vs Repeatability
Repeatability is what separates the good racers from the great, the pack-fodder from the winners. In order to win a criterium – traditionally an hour-long race on a flat, fast course – you need the ability to repeat VO2max intervals and near-maximal sprints for an hour, with your strongest effort coming in the final few minutes of the race. Strava KOMs/QOMs are basically this: who can get the fastest lap.
It doesn’t matter if it’s the first lap or the last lap, whoever can go the fastest for this short duration is crowned “king” or “queen”. Races are different; they require riders to perform under dynamic fatigue – tiredness, muscle exhaustion, and glycogen depletion over the course of minutes or hours, all of which affect our performance.
Studies have shown that top pros don’t necessarily increase their critical power output (i.e. peak one-, five-, or 20-minute power) over time; instead, their repeatability increases. For example, if a rider could do 6 W/kg for 20 minutes as a junior, they could only do it once. Ten years later, as a Tour de France contender, they can do 6 W/kg for 20+ minutes five times over the course of a 200 km mountain stage, three weeks into a Grand Tour.
In 2014, FDJ released an unprecedented amount of power data from Thibaut Pinot’s career. These data went back to when Pinot was a junior, and continued through to his third place finish at the 2014 Tour de France. There are a number of interesting notes here, including a surprising lack of increase in Pinot’s peak power output over the years.
For the six years from 2008 (when he was a junior) to 2013, Pinot’s 30-second power output remained relatively consistent: 11.9, 13.0, 13.2, 12.5, 12.4, and 13.0 W/kg, respectively. These numbers tell the story of a consistent, but not dramatically improving, rider. However, in that time, Pinot went from a talented junior to a genuine Tour de France contender. We see a similar trend in Pinot’s five-minute PRs over the same time period: 6.4, 6.9, 7.2, 7.2, 7.4, and 7.2 W/kg.
Despite these seemingly minuscule increases in peak power, Pinot’s rise to the top of the sport tells us that his overall racing ability was improving dramatically. A final example can be found in that holy grail of cycling fitness: the 20-minute power test. From 2008 to 2013, Pinot’s peak 20-minute power outputs were: 5.7, 5.9, 6.0, 6.2, 6.5, and 6.4 W/kg, respectively.
While these improvements are statistically significant, it is quite remarkable that a Tour de France contender such as Pinot has performed at such a high level with a peak 20-minute power output of less than 7.0 W/kg.
Take a quick browse through the most popular Strava KOMs, and you’ll find countless riders who have eclipsed the 6.5-7 W/kg barrier. Most of these names you’ve never even heard of. Many of these riders don’t even race. So why aren’t they winning the Tour de France? If they can do 7 W/kg versus Pinot’s 6.4 W/kg, why aren’t they better than him?
In January 2018, pro rider Freddy Ovett smashed the Strava KOM for the famous 1 in 20 segment, a 6.8km stretch of road outside of Melbourne with an average gradient of roughly 4%. For 12 minutes and 20 seconds, Ovett averaged 6.4 W/kg – an impressive number to say the least, but according to Ovett, it was still a ways off his best-ever numbers (6.7-6.8 W/kg for a similar duration).
Ovett’s Strava profile is one that most of us could only ever dream of: KOM on the Els Angels climb near Girona (10.1km at 3%), ahead of the Yates twins; sixth on Mont Ventoux (21.4km at 7%) where he held 380W (5.8 W/kg) for over an hour; and 11th on the Rocacorba (9.9km at 7%), one of the most famous training climbs in the world, also near Girona.
On each of these leaderboards, Ovett’s name is surrounded by Grand Tour winners, world championship medalists, and more of the world’s top pros. Yet Ovett has struggled for results in his career as a professional cyclist. Even in mountainous races that seem to play to his strengths (i.e. his massive W/kg), he has only landed on the podium once in his pro career, according to ProCyclingStats.
So why haven’t his incredible Strava performances translated into race wins? In Ovett’s own words, “I’ve had accidents, bad luck – it’s been a long story…” For instance, he suffered cramps in the 2018 Australian National Road Championships, three days prior to his 1 in 20 KOM.
While tailwinds, lead-outs, and superior equipment can help an average rider snag a local Strava KOM/QOM, it is hard to “fake it” when competing for a serious climbing KOM such as the 1 in 20 where the top riders are all putting out 6-7 W/kg. So what then separates a Strava legend from a Tour de France contender? Repeatability and training.
Phil Gaimon’s Worst Retirement Ever
“Retired” pro, Phil Gaimon, says that his power numbers are better than ever. His five-minute, 20-minute, and 60-minute bests have all been set since he left the WorldTour. So why did he quit racing? If he’s better, faster, and stronger now, shouldn’t pro teams be bombarding his email inbox with contract offers?
Perhaps he was tired of the nomadic lifestyle, crashing constantly, or racing alongside a bunch of 150 skinny dudes in Lycra. While each of these reasons could be valid, wouldn’t winning – and the (little bit of) fame and fortune that comes with it – justify the continuation of his racing career? But therein lies the problem: Gaimon isn’t a better racer now than when he was a pro, he’s just better at stealing Strava KOMs.
Strava KOMs are all about one effort – a lung-bursting, sanity-questioning, lactic-acid-up-to-your-eyeballs effort. No one cares how many watts you averaged before the KOM, or if you rode five minutes to the bottom of the climb or five hours. No one cares how many miles you rode that week, what your Training Stress Balance or Chronic Training Load were that day, or how many people led you out. All that matters is your time on the leaderboard.
Throughout his YouTube chronicles, Gaimon has at times brought up his lack of ‘race fitness’. Despite setting all-time power PRs across the board, Gaimon suggests that his ability to win races has diminished. But how could this be? Aren’t power output and ‘race fitness’ positively correlated? Not exactly.
Gaimon says that since “retiring”, he trains at about half the volume he used to. He also said that he only goes hard on the uphills. His top-end has improved, he suggests, since his time racing as a professional, but his repeatability and overall endurance have decreased.
During a trip to Vancouver (see video above), for example, he attempted the Triple Crown, a three-climb assault on some of Vancouver’s most famous KOMs. For the first effort, Gaimon averaged 384W for 23 minutes. But on the second climb, he averaged just 350W for 33 minutes. The 10-minute time difference is an important caveat, but still, the 34W decrease is quite significant, especially considering that Gaimon took time to fully recover in between efforts (unlike in a real race scenario), and both KOMs were long enough that they were simply aerobic power tests.
At 6 W/kg, Gaimon could comfortably stay with the top Tour de France contenders on the first climb of any mountain day. But a 30W drop-off on the second climb could mean the difference between being in the front group and being in the groupetto. This is not Gaimon’s fault – by his own admission, it’s a consequence of his training.
Frank Overton, Gaimon’s coach at FastCat Coaching, says that Gaimon’s training is focused on maximal efforts lasting 10-30 minutes. Gone are the days of 6-7 hour rides in Big Bear and 30-hour weeks. Now is the time for Strava KOMs. That means hard, threshold and VO2max efforts multiple times a week, all crammed into 12-15 hours of training, at the most.
So if that’s what it takes to steal Strava KOMs around the world, what does it take to win races?
Training for Races
As I’ve suggested above, repeatability wins races. Having the ability to do multiple race-winning efforts is what separates good riders from the great. Have you ever noticed how in the first 15 minutes of a local crit, it’s almost impossible for a breakaway to get away, and almost no one gets dropped? That’s because everyone is fresh. No one is tired yet.
Attacking in the first 10 minutes of a race is usually a dumb move. At best, you’ll get a small gap, hang out in the wind, and maybe snag a prime or two. But half an hour later, you’ll be swallowed up by the pack, covered in salt and dripping sweat – and there’s still 20 minutes to go. That is when the winning breakaway goes, when the smartest and strongest riders throw down a leg-breaking attack in the finale, leaving the field floundering in their wake.
In terms of power and speed, these race-winning attacks are usually nothing special. No one is doing 7+ W/kg for 20 minutes after five hours of racing. But search through Strava KOMs from around the world, and hundreds (if not thousands) of riders can be seen putting out an incredible 7+ W/kg for 20 minutes. The difference is, these riders are fresh as a daisy.
Freshness and Fatigue
Imagine a person’s athletic performance represented by an old-fashioned balance scale. On one side is a block of fatigue; on the other, a block of freshness. When one goes up, the other goes down. At the beginning of an uphill time trial, riders are very fresh. But five hours into a mountain stage, or even just 40 minutes into your local crit, fatigue is high. Heart rates are going through the roof while glycogen levels are tanking, and the last thing you want to do is go even harder for the last 20 minutes of the race.
That’s exactly what the best pro riders in the world do – when everyone is tired, shattered from fatigue, and crumbling under the weight of their repeated efforts, the race-winners take off. To be able to perform that close to your best, with that amount of fatigue in your legs, is what separates the race winner from the local Strava KOM/QOM-holder.
About the author
Zach Nehr is a Level 3 USA Cycling coach, a Cat 1 cyclist and a graduate from Marian University where he received a Bachelor’s Degree in Exercise Science and Psychology. He is currently undertaking a Masters degree in Physiology.