Home on the (Open) Range: James Walsh's Open Range Gravel Replay
I kicked off my season at Open Range Gravel in Pratt, Kansas on April 29th. This was the third time I've raced at Open Range and it's one of my favorite courses. It has a bit of everything: super fast gravel, sand, technical ranch sectors, and as always with the midwest in the spring: plenty of wind.
I went into the race with solid winter and spring of training behind me, but my build-up was different than it has been in the past few years. I changed things up quite a bit training-wise this year. I had a really good season last year with a lot of podiums and some overall wins, but I felt there were still some holes in my fitness and areas in which I could improve. I think one of the reasons I've lasted almost 20 years in endurance sports is that I love the training, as well as the whole process of building into a season.
I'm a network engineer and I spend my "work" days designing, deploying, troubleshooting, and optimizing global networks. I take the mindset required for that and apply it to my training. I was able to look at last year and all the racing I did and find the areas I thought I could improve. Some of that is just race tactics and as gravel racing continues to grow and all races keep getting more competitive that tactical side is super important. The other side is fitness, and while I knew I was fit there were areas I needed to improve on. I've always been a solid climber and good at attacking rollers but in races, I would suffer more than I should on the flatter sections while riding in groups with all the surging.
So, this winter I wanted to work on putting out more power on the flats and in race situations. For on-the-bike intervals, I did a lot of Over-Under (lactate clearance) workouts where I would surge for 30-60 seconds over my threshold and then settle in for 2-5 minutes at or below threshold and keep repeating that. I combined that with some big gear/high torque work and a lot of strength work off the bike. I wanted to increase my absolute power and put on some muscle. Most cyclists don't want to lift weights due to a fear of putting on muscle (which means weight), but that was exactly what I was trying to do. Most gravel races are not won or lost on long climbs, so watts per kilogram aren't as important as some people may think. I just wanted to be able to put out more raw power on the bike.
I also wanted to train a bit less and take a more polarized approach, which meant making hard days harder, easy days easier, and taking more days off. Like most of us, I have a lot going on outside of riding my bike. My job is always full blast, as my daughter gets older and more competitive her soccer season/schedule takes up a lot more time (which I love), and my wife and I are in the middle of many projects on our house... so yeah, I have a lot going on and wanted to make my training a bit more focused and cut anything this isn't needed or is just filler volume.
The training has worked. I have put on a couple of pounds of muscle, my FTP is higher coming out of the winter than it's ever been, and I am hitting PRs in training, which after almost 20 years of training, is kind of blowing my mind.
I rolled into Open Range with a lot of confidence and stoke to race but also knew the first race of the year is always a punch in the face. No matter how hard you train the first race is always a shock to the system—or it is for me.
I joked around before the race that I’d be racing a super strong “kid”, Chris Melham (he’s 22 years younger than me!), and that ended up being the case… for the first 50 miles at least.
We started as a strong group that whittled down to just 4 by the time we hit the first aid station at mile 35. Shortly after Chris attacked which caught the three of us off guard. By the time we hit the ranch/technical section, Chris had 45 seconds on me and I had the same on the third and fourth-place cyclists. I went for it at the ranch knowing it would be my only chance to get back to him… and I did. We exited the ranch together. I had been working hard at this point just to stay with Chris (avg power 286/315) for the first 2.5 hours.
At mile 50 I had a decision to make. We had a cross/tailwind, so sitting in wasn’t helping me much and I was burning matches to just hang on with a hard 70-plus miles to go. I decided to back it off and do my best to hold on for a second. Chris rode away and that’s the last I would see of him in the race… or anybody for that matter.
I kept my head down and rode just hard enough that if I got caught, I would have enough energy to battle to the line. That never happened. That last 43 miles were into a 20-plus mile per hour headwind and it was so hard… more mentally than physically. In the end, I rode that last 70 miles solo and hung on to second place. Stoked.
My power numbers on the day were the highest ever for a gravel race… which is saying a lot with all the racing I have done over the years. My normalized power was 241 watts (5800+ kilojoules) and I hit my highest ever 10-second (358 watts) and 20-second (346 watts) power. I've been training with power since 2009 so to hit lifetime PRs is just crazy. I felt really strong in the race but didn't have my normal snap and I think that was just not nailing my taper which is something I'll be working on going forward.
The race leaves me with a lot of confidence and has me itching to race again very soon.Shop James Walsh's GVR