(photo courtesy of Ironman.com)On Saturday I competed in the North American Championships for Ironman 70.3, held in Saint George, Utah. I raced hard, set myself up for a top finish, and when my body gave in to the caliber of the course, I held on for a 10th place finish.
St George is a beautiful place. It’s in the southwest corner of Utah, surrounded by natural beauty that makes it easy to understand why the west was settled. The mountains surrounding St George also make for an especially challenging venue for a Half-Ironman, and it’s easy to see why World Triathlon Corporation has settled here for the North American Championships.
The swim course is in a pristine lake East of St George, where the spring-fed water is crystal clear and has just the right amount of crisp without being overly cold. We swam three sides of a rectangle around a red rock outcrop. John Bird, from Canada, was the leader throughout the swim. I was a few guys back. During this swim I had a very new experience: I could actually recognize the guys around me and I knew what was going on. For eight years I’ve been racing with pool goggles – the smaller the better – and making fun of guys like Kevin Collington for wearing what I jokingly referred to ask snorkel masks. Then a few months ago Blue Seventy sent me a pair of their Hydra-Vision goggles because they were out of the pool goggles I normally order. You can get them with polarized lenses, and the clarity is remarkable. Kevin, I’m sorry I ever made fun of your goggle choice.
I was third onto the bike, and after about 10 miles I found myself in a small breakaway. There are mixed reports out there of how small, but I think it was Brent McMahon, Tim Don and myself. Andrew Yoder came close to catching back on, but with a poor swim the effort to bridge proved to be a day-breaker for him.
The bike course is especially challenging. Comparing it to St Croix, where I’ve raced the past two years on this weekend, the weather is less challenging, but the course is equivalent. St Croix has continuous rollers and “the beast”, while St George has longer, sustained climbs, that take you to Snow Canyon with a six mile climb starting at mile 40.
I was pretty nervous about the bike. Mainly because I live in Chicago and any confidence I used to have on descending has been trained out of me by trainer sessions and a lack of practice. It was also my first attempt to use SRAM Force 1 on a course that is a prime example of when common sense would tell you more gears are better.
(If you don’t care about my rather lengthy process of choosing to ride SRAM 1x, skip down to where I say “back to the race report)
A little background on Force 1: I took an internship at SRAM in their product management division last fall. One of the projects I was there for was the launch of a new road drivetrain featuring just one front chainring and no front derailleur. This is techonology that’s been widely accepted in mountain biking, and is becoming the standard in Cyclocross, but bringing the technology into the traditional road segments poses new challenges. First, gear density (the % difference in gear ratios between adjacent gears) is a much bigger deal to road cyclist than for mountain bikers. Second, road bikes go much faster, so in order to have sufficient high gears, you have to have a huge range to get the low gears that we need for easy rides and mountain climbs.
I rode Force 1 at Challenge Dubai in February, but that was a flat course and it was easy to justify taking off the small ring. The aerodynamics and weight upsides far outweigh the need for a small ring I was never going to use anyway. there I ran a 52 tooth front chainring with an 11-26 cassette. It was basically the same gear range and density that I would have used with a 2x (pronounced two-by) setup.
After that I did two gravel rides on Force 1 – the Barry Rubaix in Michigan where I supported a fellow SRAMmie to help him to a 5th place finish, and the SRAM 1x (“one-by”) product launch in San Louis Obispo where we took editors from around the world on a crazy off-road ride on road bikes to prove that we can ride 1x anywhere. At both of those rides I had no desire for an extra front chain ring, but ssomething kept telling me that it would be different for a hilly triathlon. I even had a discussion with Slowtwitch’s Dan Empfield about whether 1x could be used at Wildflower where I flat out said that for people using triathlon bikes on really hilly terrain, 2x drivetrains are probably the better choice.
I came to St George with my brand-spankin’ new Red & White 2015 Cervelo P5, freshly built with SRAM Force 1. It looked awesome, but I was still nervous about the gearing. I was running a 54 tooth ring with an 11-36 cassette. This gave me a slightly higher high gear and slightly lower low gear than the 53/39 front and 11-25 rear setup I had used last year (a 54-36 is exactly the same gear ratio as a 39-26, and the 54-11 is higher than a 53-11). So I knew I had the right range, but to get there I was losing some of the middle ratios and I was worried I would be “gear gazing” (a term I made up while analyzing this potential problem).
To analyze the downside of this problem I first created my own excel model, looking at the gaps between gears (there is one 17% jump in an 11-36 cassette, while my 11-26 never exceeds 15%). I looked at the speeds where I would be between gears, given my preference for 95rpm, and what my cadence variance would be in order to maintain that speed. Without knowing exactly how much of the race I would be at any of those speeds I really didn’t know if it would be a problem that at 28.5mph I would have to choose between 88rpm or 102 rpm (based on my training data, 102 wouldn’t be out of my normal range, but 88 would be).
To figure out specifically what ratios I would need for this race I reached out to BestBikeSplit.com. These guys have taken time trial analytics to a new level. They will take your FTP testing data, plus a course profile and create a specific race plan for you to set the best possible time on the course. I explained my problem and they jumped at the chance to play with the numbers and help me out. I sent them a bunch of Garmin files from past races so they could get an idea of my race power abilities, as well as my drag coefficient. They then built a race plan for me at St George and from that drew a frequency chart to show the percent of time during the race that I would be in any given gear, given 95rpm cadence as a target.
Here’s the chart:
What’s important here is that this is what I would use if I had every gear from 11 up to 36. The 11-36 Cassette, however, has 11,12,13,15,17,19,22,25,28,32, and 36 teeth cogs. The majority of the missing cogs are barely used and aren’t much different from their closest peer (35 and 36 are < 3% apart). What made me worry is that the 14 is missing, which accounts for almost 12% of my race, and the 15 is (15-14)/14*100 = 7% away – meaning about 6rpm over my “ideal”.
Riding the course a couple days before, I realized my fears were likely not warranted. I rode Snow Canyon and some flats and descents – a 30 mile ride – with one of the guys from the SRAM neutral support crew. I didn’t have any problems on the flat sections and going up the hills it occurred to me that the 54-26 was letting me spin faster than my ride partner could on his 2x road bike. It seemed I had both the range and gear density to be happy, and with a couple days to go my nerves eased up a bit.
During the race, the times I noticed that I didn’t have a front derailleur were when Brent was in front of me and I would yoyo into him as he shifted into the small ring for a hill (really three shifts, because you have to shift the front, then shift the rear a couple of times to get to the next ratio from where you were). While he was shifting a bunch, I was just one click away from my next gear, and it seemed to save me more than I expected. I never felt like I needed a gear that I didn’t have, and I had as much range as I needed. I loved racing on 1x, and I no longer think there’s a course that can’t be raced with it.
—back to the race report—-
Through the bike I felt great. I never felt like I was really pushing my limits and I was confident in my ability to run off what seemed to be a well paced bike leg.
Starting the run I was certainly tired, but not more than expected. I grabbed my hydration pack and started on what I knew to be a very challenging run course. I knew it was about three miles uphill. I had seen the course, and yet as I climbed those first three miles I began wishing they would end. I still felt good past the peak, and was holding onto second up until Tim Don passed me at mile 5. At the first of several turnarounds I saw I was still pretty far up from the next group and I really thought holding onto third would be no problem.
Then things went south.
Around mile six my GI system turned to liquid, I made a pit stop, after which my muscles turned to jello. I started running progressively slower until my brain could focus on nothing but the distance to the finish line. Every step was harder than the one before and as I finally approached the long three mile descent I found I couldn’t even come close to the pace I had held going up the same hill. I was fried, dehydrated, exhausted, and past what my current fitness would allow. I fought hard until the finish, but felt like I was crawling as pack after pack passed me in the final miles. In the last two miles I sank from sixth to tenth where I crossed the line.
After the race I had a moment where I thought this was the worst I’ve fallen apart at a race. Then I remembered Puerto Rico, and my first attempt at St Croix, and how I had finished in the hospital at both of those. Considering that, I’ve come a long way. I know early season races are tough to hit hard after long Chicago winters. But taking that chance – putting it on the line to see what happens – that’s what I enjoy about the sport, and I’ll keep taking risks. Sometimes they pay off.
Tim Don ended up winning the race. I found this out a couple hours after the finish when I emerged from the med tent. When Tim passed me at mile five we were a couple minutes down from Brent, and I assumed that Brent had held on for the win. Turns out I wasn’t the only one to blow up at the end, Brent just did it a little more gracefully and far more profitably. Congrats to Tim on the win, and to Brent for laying it out there with me through 56 miles on the bike and then starting off the run like a man without fear.