Friday, December 2, 2011

Cyclocross Power: A Detailed Look into Ryan Trebon’s Watts by Russ Stevenson

Cyclocross Magazine got a rare look at a top-’crosser’s power file: Ryan Trebon’s (LTS-Felt) race winning effort at the 2011 Planet Bike USGP. Power specialist and coach Russell Stevenson analyzes the data and looks at exactly why – and where – Trebon is so good. See for yourself what constitutes a world-class cyclocross talent!
Ryan Trebon took his first UCI win of the season at Planet Bike Day 1. Now we get to look at the race winning effort! © Amy Dykema
Ryan Trebon took his first UCI win of the season at Planet Bike Day 1. Now we get to look at the race winning effort! © Amy Dykema
by Russell Stevenson
Power meters have been commonplace in cycling for a decade. However, their use in cyclocross is a relatively new, but growing trend. Look around: Some of the best ’cross racers in the US and Europe are powering up for both their racing and training, and power meters are coming in various forms these days, a far cry from what was available just six or seven years ago. Whether you’re dropping big money on the latest trick carbon widgets or just out there for there cold post (or in-) race beers, if you’re into going faster, you should consider investing in a power meter and learn how to use it.
I’m going to throw out a lot of techy stuff here, so try to keep up. If you want to dig deeper into understanding my power terminology, go to
My background in cyclocross racing dates back to my humble beginnings around 1998 in my home of Seattle, Washington. With years of road and MTB racing under my belt, I took to the sport quickly. These days, I’m still out there racing a handful of the UCI Elite races each year, although usually from the back row and with an entirely different motivation. I’m really just out there to have a good time, represent my generous sponsor (Raleigh Bicycles) and enjoy the whole experience. The riders six to seven rows in front of me are paid pros who don’t cut corners. As a coach, it’s been an awesome learning experience to learn about what it takes to be a world class ’cross racer. So let’s define fast …
I’ve had the privilege of getting my paws on one of Ryan’s Trebon’s power files from the Planet Bike USGP in Sun Prairie, where he bested two-time world champ Bart Wellens of Belgium. This file will definitely set our high mark! We now know what the workload looks like to be at the front (and win) a UCI race. In a later story, I’m going to dive into this same subject for women.
Ryan’s power is noteworthy. Prior to this race-winning effort, Ryan had posted a different file on Facebook that immediately caught my eye as off-the-charts. It showed average wattage numbers comparable to Alpine stage winners of the Tour de France, but for a full hour! I pestered him for long enough, and he eventually shared this race file with me. To my amazement, I see now he truly is that good.
Ryan’s Facebook post of that earlier race was a Garmin Connect URL with pretty limited information. His race file showed an average wattage of 472. “No way,” I thought, “that can’t be right.” After a closer look and factoring in the “zeroes” (or time spent not pedaling) the average power for the race was 409 watts, or 5.1w/kg (Trebon weighs approximately 80kg, or 176 pounds – impressive for a guy who’s 6′5″!). Still, that’s a big, big number if you know anything about average wattage. But let’s look at his USGP win in more detail, and I think you’ll quickly see it’s not always about average watts – especially in cyclocross.
Note: I am not Ryan’s coach. Ryan is coached by Jim Lehman of Carmichael Training Systems. I am taking my best calculated guess at Ryan’s personal stats. I don’t have full access to his training library, only this one race.
Powers opted to always stay on his bike, while Trebon ran the barriers and stairs. © Amy Dykema
Powers opted to always stay on his bike, while Trebon ran the barriers and stairs. © Amy Dykema
Ryan’s USGP Planet Bike file stats:
Average race wattage was 399 or 424 normalized. His max power was 1431 watts. He expended 1424KJ, had a TSS score of 104 and an average cadence of 80 rpm. Ryan uses a Quarq Cinqo power meter combined with the Garmin Edge 500 CPU.
Based on this one file, I estimate Ryan’s FTP (functional threshold power) to be at or near 415 watts, or 5.2w/kg – good numbers, for sure. Typically when riders hold 150% of FTP for longer than a few minutes, they’re seeing stars. Ryan can continually go to 200% of his FTP. Ouch! That he can go that high, repeatedly for an hour, is a testament to his fitness and grit along with his unique physiology. One of the toughest things about cyclocross is that it rewards riders who have a large anaerobic capacity. Ryan’s power file back that assertion up, and his numbers show that his anaerobic capacity, coupled with a high threshold point, set him apart.
Further analysis shows that Ryan spent the majority of this race between 400w and 800w, or between about 95 and 190% of his FTP. He accelerated more than 120 times at or near 850w for 20 to 30 seconds (10.6w/kg). 120 times! Seeing this sparks my interest in his day-to-day training files. I can’t be sure if he’s training like he races, but whatever he’s doing is working well for him.
Looking at the above-average wattage durations, it’s clear that in ’cross racing, it’s all about high sustained power output combined with massive accelerations. The longest sustained effort in this race was less than 60 seconds before the power shuts off completely. When you consider how Ryan comes to these high levels and the time he’s spending there (very short), the importance of maximal power and the “repeatability” of these efforts becomes crucial. More on this in a second.
Some insight into how Ryan creates power is something maybe only his competitors ever get to see. Ryan is a bit of a pedal masher, pedaling at an average cadence of 80. That’s not a bad thing because wattage is a combination of force and speed. He pedals with high force and with relatively low pedal velocity or cadence. “Tree Farm,” as he’s nicknamed, uses a 177.5 crank and should be glad he does. Knowing his pedaling style, if he opted for something more standard, like a 175 or 172.5 crank length, he wouldn’t be utilizing his strength, muscle composition and leverage to it’s fullest. Years ago at a stage race in Oregon, I remember calling him out for using a 175 crank. I assumed a guy like him should be using a 177.5 or longer length to maximize his height and leverage. I asked him about it and he replied, “I don’t know, should I? It’s all I have.” At that time, I was as naive as he was and merely assumed that longer would be better. These days we have the technology to know that for Ryan, a longer crank is better.
Riders produce power in different ways. For example, I pedal at or above 100 rpm most of the time because it’s harder for me to create wattage from force. My muscle composition is a good mix of fast and slow twitch muscles, with the majority probably leaning more to the slower type 1 type. I wind it up slowly but can continue to build and build to maximal power, compared to Ryan’s full-on punchy style that he uses to put the hurt on his competitors out of each turn. The cadence to wattage comparison is important because you can now find your own sweet spot of economy and power output.
Another stand-out aspect of Ryan’s race is his maximal power. Out of the blocks he does a 1430w sprint, accelerating to over 27 mph. He goes on to produce 11 more maximal sprints at 1200+w throughout the race, ending with a final maximal kick within the final 500m of 1190w. That he can repeat those efforts shows incredible neuromuscular power and economy. His decline rate, or “fatigue resistance,” is also world class, as he only loses six percent of his maximal power over a one-hour race. That’s also a very important stat.
How does he do that? I can’t say for certain, but I have to assume he practices these repeated accelerations regularly while at or near his FTP. I’ll also assume that Ryan has the biological gift of a massive cardiovascular system, a naturally very high VO2 max and a perfect muscle fiber balance suited for cycling.
Besides obviously being a world caliber professional racer, Ryan states: “The race was pretty tactical with Jeremy Powers, Bart Wellens and me at the front. None of us really [were] attacking – just riding a fast tempo and waiting for others to make a mistake. I felt very good technically that day and never felt under pressure, so I had lots in reserve for that last lap.”
My interpretation of “Felt good technically” and “No one attacking” means 1) Ryan probably wasn’t burning too many matches to be at the front, and 2) He was able to conserve energy in the technical parts of the course. As a racer, I know that these two sensations build your psychological confidence in a big way and, physiologically, you actually have more in the tank when it matters most. Lethal!
The majority of his race was on, off, on, off – repeatedly. Cyclocross power files look like a young and very jagged mountain range with nothing but peaks and valleys. One standout stat is that he didn’t pedal for a full 16% of the race. There are always going to be portions of a ’cross race off the bike or coasting, but 16% seems high. Usually, the guy who pedals less has more energy at the end. Hunter Allen, co-Author of the book Training and Racing with a Power Meter, even states that the best road racers don’t pedal 15% of the time or more. That 16% is comparable to a long road race, which is a surprising.
When I asked Ryan about his winning strategy, he commented, “I attacked with a half lap to go through a technical section, and I just kept applying the pressure the remainder of the lap. I knew I had to have at least three to five seconds going into the run-up on the last lap to win.”
This last lap attack at nearly 800 watts gave Ryan the cushion he needed to beat two-time world champ Bart Wellens. Photo and power file courtesy Ryan Trebon.
This last lap attack at nearly 800 watts gave Ryan the cushion he needed to beat two-time world champ Bart Wellens. Photo and power file courtesy Ryan Trebon.
As I analyzed Ryan’s file, I looked closely at where Ryan attacked. I recall a short paved section after the long out-and-back grass field before the downhill to the run-up. It’s a perfectly suited spot on course to nuke it. During his attack, Ryan maintained about 800w (10w/kg) for just about 20 seconds. If you look at this same section during his first lap as compared to his last, he is almost 100 watts lower in power early in the race. This shows again his outstanding fitness, as he’s able to raise his output for the finale. Furthermore, this section where he lights it up is also the same area that shows his best one-minute power for the entire race. This tells me that Ryan was probably paying close attention to where he was the strongest. That’s a huge tactical advantage in any bike race. In bike racing, you want to race your strengths and manage your weaknesses. All part of his plan?
Trebon's best 1-minute power, also where he puts in his winning move. He was aware of the section he was strongest, a key tactical advantage! Photo and power file courtesy Ryan Trebon.
Trebon's best 1-minute power, also where he puts in his winning move. He was aware of the section he was strongest, a key tactical advantage! Photo and power file courtesy Ryan Trebon.
A Lot of “Wow” Numbers Here, Eh?
I don’t recommend comparing yourself to Ryan Trebon – you’ll find it’s quite humbling! I was in this same race with Ryan. My FTP is about 340w or 4.8w/kg, which, by Elite racer standards, is quite good! A good Cat 3 may be in the neighborhood of 3.8-4.0 w/kg. The gap between my FTP and Ryan’s is significant and certainly a game changer. Yes, I have power repeatability like Ryan, but my “ceiling” is lower and overall output range less. His lap times at Sun Prairie were on average 45 seconds faster than mine, leaving me three-quarters of a lap behind at the finish. That stat shows his absolute speed versus mine, and I’m not even factoring in his superior technical ability – something that we can’t yet track like we do wattage. [Note: we will attempt to quantify this missing element in a future article!] If we look at the longest sustained portion of the course (which is just less than a minute) and factor that Ryan can produce 7.2w/kg as opposed to my 5.9w/kg, you can quickly do the math and understand how he pulls away. Ryan’s greatest skills are his ability to create very high power through incredible force output, and the ability to repeat that power over and over.
Russell's best 1-minute power, on the same section of course, is 1.3w/kg lower than Ryan's. Cadence is in the mid-90s, with a torque of 192lb/min less. Russell's spin vs. Ryan's power. Photo and power file courtesy Ryan Trebon.
Russell's best 1-minute power, on the same section of course, is 1.3w/kg lower than Ryan's. Cadence is in the mid-90s, with a torque of 192lb/min less. Russell's spin vs. Ryan's power. Photo and power file courtesy Ryan Trebon.
Now we know what kind of output is needed to win a UCI C1 race. Let’s all go out and practice 1400w sprints, right? Well … maybe not. To compare yourself to Ryan Trebon is tough. He possesses some amazing physiological attributes comparable to the best in the world. The rest of us can, however, learn from these amazing feats to be stronger, smarter and more course savvy. Here are some tips …
  1. Build your Anaerobic motor. “Anaerobic” means efforts without oxygen, and by definition they are very short in duration, such as 30 seconds to two minutes. I hate to sound cliché, but “coffee shop” or mellow-paced ’cross bike rides won’t help you win races. You need to take yourself into the pain cave, repeatedly, for short durations in order to gain the explosiveness required for cyclocross. You’ll need to work on your repeatability, so start out with a longer rest/work ratio, say double rest to work, then gradually move towards a 1:1 rest/work ratio as you progress.
  2. Work on low cadence, high tension strength building, through “Big gear intervals.” Some folks swear by weight lifting to build strength, and it does work. I tend to lean more towards doing the heavy lifting on the bike. A lot of people think riding around at 50 rpm all day will give you more power, but that’s false. To create more muscular strength, you need to slow down to 8mph, put it in the 53/13 (or an appropriately tough gear for your ability), tighten the abs, hands in the drops, stay seated, then drill it until you reach 90 rpm. Once at 90 rpm, you aren’t creating enough strain on the muscles to cause them to adapt and improve. You can train you legs to have both explosive snap and long pulling power.
  3. Know your Functional Threshold Power. Establish your FTP to create a foundation point for your training.. Think of your FTP as the starting place for all the hard work you’ll need to do. If you are without a power meter, knowing your FTHR (Functional Threshold Heart Rate) or RPE levels (Rate of Perceived Excursion) is a good place to start. Establish where you are by doing a 20 minute time trial, taking the average wattage and subtracting five percent to determine your FTP. Then make a plan to build on it.
  4. Create a race plan! I never encourage racing blind or “just going for it.” Experienced racers know the courses and their competition, and they have at least a basic plan going into an event. I break my races down into “chapters,” making it easier to overcome small setbacks within the race. Knowing “I’m almost done with the chapter” helps me to focus on the short term, getting on to whatever is next.
  5. Practice, Practice, Practice. I came from a road racing background and had to learn cyclocross bike skills the hard way. (Translation: Many crashes!) I highly recommend taking some skills clinics or simply training regularly on your cyclocross bike with riders who are better than you. ’Cross racing is the whole package, not just how hard you can pedal.

Cyclocross Workouts  Find Your Inner Tree Farm!

Here are a few proven workouts I use with my athletes:
The FTP sprint – A True VO2 Max and Anaerobic Beast
1.5-2 hours total ride time spent mostly in Z2(65-75% of FTP) or Z3(76-90% of FTP). Warm up easy for 15-20 min, then do four 10 min intervals at Threshold (100% FTP, RPE 5 or 100% FTHR). Spend the first half of the interval at 100% FTP. In the second half, begin a series of 5-6 maximal sprints lasting 15-30 sec with nearly the same recovery times.
Looks like this: :15 max, :30 recover, :20 max, :30 recover, :30 max, :20 recover, :30 max, :10 recover, :15 max. Finished. Spin down at recovery pace for 10 minutes and repeat this three to four times. As you gain fitness, you can add additional sprints, push the interval duration out to 10 minutes and reduce the recovery time.

The Over-Under Sustain 
 Builds your VO2 Max Output

1.5-2.5 hour total ride time spent mostly in Z2 (65-75% of FTP) or Z3(76-90% of FTP). Warm up easy for 15-20min then begin three to four 10 min intervals using a long hill or false flat uphill road. Come to Threshold (100% FTP, RPE 5 or 100% FTHR) and hold for 3 min.
Push over your threshold to Z5 for 1 min (115-120% of FTP, RPE 7+ or 105% FTHR). Decrease to Z3 for 2 min (85-90% FTP, RPE 4 or 90% FTHR) then back up and over your Threshold again.
The complete drill looks like this: Threshold for 3 min, Z5 for 1 min, Z3 for 2 min, Z5 for 2 min, Z3 for 3 min, Z5 for 1 min and finished. Recover at an easy pace for 10 min and repeat the Interval three to four times, depending. Interval duration is approximately 12 minutes each for a total of 36 minutes of interval time spread over three to four sets. As you become stronger, reduce your recovery time between sets.
These are just two of many effective cyclocross or road bike workouts you can do to improve your high-end sustainability and maximal sprint. I’ll go into more training detail another time.
Russell Stevenson at 2011 Starcrossed. Photo courtesy.
Russell Stevenson at 2011 StarCrossed. Photo courtesy.
Hope you enjoyed the read! It’s my first forCyclocross Magazine, but not my last. I hope to follow up this story with something similar for women. The numbers may be different, but the wining formula is similar. So do you all know your W/KG by now? Are you wondering why Sue Butler or Katie Compton is lapping your ass? Remember, though, it’s not all about these numbers. There are many more factors, some hard to measure, that make the best ’crossers fast. More on this subject soon…
Russell Stevenson is a USAC level 2 coach working for Peaks Coaching Group. He’s a certified bike fitter, Licensed Personal Trainer and Pro bike racer. He’s the 2011 Masters 35-39 road race champion and runner-up at last year’s Masters 35-39 Cyclocross Championships, both in Bend, Oregon. Russell is from Seattle, Washington, but now resides in Boulder, Colorado. You can find him on www.PeaksCoachingGroup.comor email him at russ@peakscoachinggroup,com. Thanks to Hunter Allen, head power guru at Peaks Coaching Group, for his help with this article as well.