By AJ Johnson of TrainingPeaks
Belgian Frederik Van Lierde won the 2013 GoPro Ironman World Championship by putting on what Craig Alexander later referred to as “a clinic” of patience, pacing and tactics. Never at the front until the end, Van Lierde had a plan, executed it to perfection and walked away with his first World Championship title. His SRM power data shows he averaged 294 watts (4.1 w/kg) for the ride, but it’s how and when he put out those watts that mattered. Training Peaks analyzes his data to see how his bike set him up for victory.
The old adage of “you can’t win it in the swim, but you can lose it” is true, and Van Lierde came out of the water fourth. Time lost in transition to put on his compression socks pushed him towards the back of the large pack of over 25 athletes that all exited within 45 seconds of each other. Van Lierde had to be careful to stay out of the draft – in the first 30 minutes alone there are over 10 occasions when his power drops below 100 watts. “In the beginning … you push hard but with the fact of being in a group, sometimes you have to stop pedaling as well,” he said.
Surges of power are not the ideal way to ride 112 miles, but at the pro level in the World Championships it’s as much about position and tactics as it is about fitness. For the first 1:40:00, Van Lierde had a Variability Index (VI) of 1.06, meaning he varied his effort by 6 percent during this time. A VI of 1.0 indicates a perfectly smooth power output, and overall we like to see a VI of 1.05 or less from the pros the Ironman bike. Van Lierde’s 1.06 VI for the first portion isn’t extreme, but it does show the jostling for position that happens at the front of the pro field.
By the 30-mile mark Van Lierde was in the top five. Once there his effort stayed more consistent – with the exception of when German Sebastian Kienle came roaring by around mile 43, charging to catch Australian Luke McKenzie and American Andrew Starykowicz. “There was nobody who really reacted and I was the one to chase him,” remembered Van Lierde. Van Lierde held 330 watts, or 4.6 w/kg, for six minutes to hang on to Kienle. At nearly 13-percent higher than his goal wattage for the day, this effort would be considered burning a “match.” Matches are a power term used to describe hard, sustained efforts. Burning a match or two is not a bad thing, but if you burn too many matches you’ll drain your energy. A smart racer, this was the only time Van Lierde went beyond his planned output for the day.
Ten minutes later they were climbing to Hawi. On the climb, Van Lierde stayed with Kienle and McKenzie, putting out 328 watts (4.6 w/kg) for 16 minutes. Impressively, Van Lierde’s Intensity Factor (IF) was .87 here. IF measures how hard you are going relative to your Functional Threshold Power (FTP), what you could hold for an hour. In short, after riding for almost two hours at 81 percent of FTP and having just burned a match 10 minutes prior, Van Lierde upped the effort to 87 percent and held it for 16 minutes!
Before the descent began, Van Lierde lost contact with the two uber bikers, but that was by choice. “At special needs I decided to take three bottles, so I had to stop for around 30 seconds. From that point on I was alone,” said Van Lierde. Here is another spot where Van Lierde’s decision would cost him time in the short run but prove to be wise in the end. Nutrition cannot be underestimated, especially when you are trying to replace ~4650 calories as the SRM shows he burned on the bike. “My nutrition plan has been 100 percent correct over the last two years and that’s [been] a big advantage for me. I feel great the whole 8-plus hour race,” Van Lierde commented.
After the Turnaround
Van Lierde’s coolheaded plan from the start was to keep his effort in check as much as possible the first half and save some in the tank for the return trip to Kona. “This strategy always pays off,” he said.
At the 60-mile mark, descending from Hawi is a key moment in the pro race, and the pros keep their power up even on the downhill. Now on his own, Van Lierde pushed hard, averaging 297 watts (4.1 w/kg). To put this into perspective, in terms of w/kg Van Lierde held more on the downhill from Hawi than what most age groupers could average for 112 miles. Kyle Buckingham, the fastest age grouper of the day, held 3.7 w/kg for his entire ride.
While many riders were on 55-tooth chainrings Van Lierde chose a 54, but he rides Osymetric chainrings, which are ovalized in order to maximize the power phase of the pedal stroke. (The company’s website asserts that their rings let you achieve 7-10% more power). On the O-ring, Van Lierde was able to pedal a comfortable 94 rpm’s, had to spend no time coasting and averaged 4.1 w/kg – more than able to keep up in terms of w/kg with McKenzie, who rode a 55 and averaged 3.7 w/kg on the downhill.
Having lost contact with the lead pair, Van Lierde estimates that he was alone for 90% of the second half though towards the end he could see Kienle again. As a result there are no surges in the file for the second half – the VI is a near-perfect 1.01, and there are only two spots where Van Lierde dips under 100 watts.
The Final Miles
Here’s where it becomes evident who has raced smart and prepared well. In the last 34 miles after Kawaihae, after some big efforts and three hours of riding, Van Lierde still pushed 287 watts or exactly 4 w/kg. To be prepared for these final miles, Van Lierde said, “I did a lot of overdistance [training]…rides going over 200km, and in those workouts I made sure I could still push hard in the last two hours.” His training paid off – 4 w/kg is only an IF of .75 for Van Lierde.
In the end, Van Lierde came off the bike fourth. His overall statistics are a textbook example of how to ride your way to an Ironman title: his VI was under 1.05, coming in at 1.03; his IF was under .80 at .79, and his first and second half power were practically equal (296 watts vs 291 watts). An even approach and steady racing put Van Lierde in the right places at the right time. Then the combination of experience, fitness and execution closed the deal.