Neil Shirley Road to Unbound Gravel: Checking in at the Belgian Waffle Ride

Neil Shirley’s exploits as a professional road racer are well-documented in the annals of cycling.  You can do a quick Google search and find a library of articles with him mentioned as a protagonist at “name that race.”  Unfortunately, because of Neil’s career as a journalist, you can also find a good deal out there about his more recent waning fitness.  Most of it is Neil’s own good natured jabs at himself but they probably will lead you to where I challenged him to give Unbound Gravel (formerly DK 200) one more proper crack.  
Maybe because of that challenge Neil is working with me as I collaborate with all the coaches at Source Endurance to get him up to speed to take on Unbound Gravel. En route to Unbound Gravel, Neil is targeting a few events along the way as form testers where he’ll really give it a go. This gives all of us a chance to see Neil really get after it. The first event on the list is the Canyon Belgian Waffle Ride this week. I thought I’d give Neil a quick summary of where he stands right here and now.  Then I thought, “why not just tell the world how much he’s improved?”
First, let’s bring up a fancy Training Peaks WKO 4 chart.  This is a customized Performance Manager Chart with some top 10 best efforts plotted and it starts the day Neil and I started working together, ending today. I’m going to mark it up quite a bit to illustrate what I want to show, but here’s the first unmarked version.

First, regarding the TSB, CTL, CIL, and ATL it takes about 6 weeks for the model to normalize, so ignore everything to the left of the grey line. You’re not really ignoring it, just taking it with a grain of salt.
With Neil, as with many 8am-5pm professionals, periodization is more difficult to construct and subtle to see. The biggest driving force behind CTL is volume but when volume is relatively constant year round, viewing training cycles by CTL alone is tough.  Also, work and family stress tend to be Neil’s primary limiting factors for training load. But if you look closely, you’ll see some periodization. We’re timing these smaller training cycles based on Neil’s overall stress and performance. The circles are more micro cycles.  CTL and CIL deflection changes are probably best to see macrocycles. I’ll outline some for you here….

Overall fitness or CTL (teal) looks to have climbed steadily from the low 60s to where it sits currently in the upper 90s.  That’s a good indicator but not a promise of a good ride at BWR. But there are others indicators on this chart which could be telling.
Chronic Intensity Load (CIL, navy blue) has recently taken a sharper upward turn as Neil starts to accumulate efforts above his Functional Threshold Power (FTP). Considering Neil’s feedback, we’ve added more and more exposure to those high intensity energy systems and the results are starting to show on this chart.
In athletics, consistency is an immensely valuable aspect of performance.  A one-time performance is great, but in sporting terms, being a “one hit wonder” won’t get much attention beyond your own internet meme or a cool GIF.  The superstars are known for consistently being able to engineer a comeback or win a sprint or make a clutch 3 pointer. They are consistent. That’s why I look not only at the best of the top 10 efforts, but also at how close in time they occur relative to each other.
Here you’ll see that in the last 5 weeks (21 weeks in this sample), Neil has performed 70% of his best 5 minute efforts (green) and 40% of his best 60 and 20 minute rides (red and burgundy).  That’s an incredible trend toward consistent improvement and one that we rarely see (his history as a marquee professional likely helps him). But the point is made. Also of note is that while his recent 1 minute efforts aren’t in line with those others, he also hasn’t worked on them at all.  

There’s obviously more we can discuss here.  I never even touched on ATL or TSB. Maybe next time.
What should we expect from Neil at the Canyon Belgian Waffle Ride?  I think we should expect Neil to ride in the front group. I also think that as the day gets longer, Neil will fade less than most.  We’ve done a considerable amount of work to nullify that >3500kJ fatigue and I hope he gets a chance to show it off.
But don’t take it from me, let the man speak for himself: “Coming into this year’s Canyon Belgian Waffle Ride, which will be the seventh time I’ve done the event, I have a confidence in my preparation that I haven’t felt for the past few years. After winning the event in 2013 and 2014, just making it to the finish line the past few years has been a battle in itself. Now, with just days to go before the start, I can confidently say that my depth of fitness and ability to repeat threshold intensity late into training rides is a feeling I almost forgot about. As Adam mentioned, we haven’t touched on the V02 work much, which will make things a little more challenging when trying to compete with the top riders, but looking for opportunities to turn my current strengths into an advantage out on course will hopefully play a factor. With Unbound Gravel just 8 weeks away, BWR will be the ideal test of fitness and equipment, allowing Adam a full picture of where we’re at so he can identify any tweaks that might need to be made between race finish and the time I line up at the start line in Emporia, Kansas on June 2nd.”
See everyone at the Canyon Belgian Waffle Ride!
About the Author: Adam Mills has raced at the elite level since 2002 and graduated with a Masters in Exercise Physiology from the University of Kansas in 2005. His true talent comes with his ability to combine his vast experience with his knowledge of sport. He is indeed a student of science, sport, athletic performance, strategy, and tactics. He continuously educates himself by keeping up to date with current trends and methods in sport and his clients have reaped the benefits from this work with over 13 national championships in 8 disciplines on two continents. Adam is able to incorporate these attributes on a daily basis to help his clients reach and exceed their goals whether they are a beginner or a seasoned professional. Learn more about Adam and Source Endurance here.