Haute Route Oman: Race Report & Pacing Strategy
The all-new Haute Route Oman was an interesting event from a pacing standpoint: three very different stages to ride, and all very early in the season for a northern hemisphere cyclist.
The race itself is very easy logistically, so long as you book early enough to have a room at the event hotel, the excellent Golden Tulip in Nizwa. The hotel is 134km from the airport. Several shuttles were arranged to make things easy for the riders, and once at the hotel there was no need to move. All rides left directly from the hotel, with the exception of Stage 3 where again, transport was arranged.
A total of 270 riders were registered for the three-day event, coming from 34 different countries. The Middle East was well represented as well as the traditional cycling nations in Europe. Many people came for as far away as Australia, South Africa, Mexico or the United States. The Haute Route is a very special event for the diversity of riders and the international friendships which form: we saw many familiar faces that we have ridden with at other Haute Route events.
Stage 1: Nizwa to Jebel Akhdar (and back). 84km / 3000m+
A quick glance at the profile shows that this was to be a tough stage. Beginning with a 14.5km neutralised section on a flat road, the timing started at the foot of Jebel Akhdar, Oman’s famous “Green Mountain”. The majority of the climbing is in the first 14km, at an average of 10.8%. Few climbs in the world have this combination of length and gradient. The road levels off at the viewpoint and then continues deep into the plateau with numerous short, steep climbs and descents until km 58, where we were to turn around and retrace our steps. Part of the return (km 64 to km 71) was planned to be untimed due to dangerous road conditions, and the finish was back at the viewpoint on the edge of the plateau at km 84. The 33km descent back to the hotel was untimed.
In a multi-day stage race, riding too hard on Stage 1 always results in poor performance on the later stages. The challenge is to get the dose right. Usually measured in percentage of Functional Threshold Power (FTP), the “magic number” varies from one rider to the next depending on how fit and how fresh the rider is, and how quickly he or she recovers. The range we recommend is between 70% and 80% of FTP. Early in the season it is better to be prudent. Bear in mind also that you probably need to adjust your FTP down from last season’s peak. Depending on how you have trained through the off-season, it may be anywhere between 5% and 15% lower.
Without a power meter you will be relying on heart rate and your sensations.
My strategy for Stage 1 was to stay in the wheels making the absolute minimum effort until the timing starts at km 14.5, and then aim to climb at a steady 70% FTP. I then aimed to keep the same power output on the climbs and any flat sections across the plateau, and to keep the power as high as possible on the descents. I planned to let other riders go, ride my own race and avoid any efforts above FTP.
My average power for the untimed section was nice and low, in Zone 1. The climb, however, was a different story. An average of 10.8% for 14 km is bad enough; in practice the gradient seemed to be either 0% or 15%. The initial ramp set the tone: in spite of my low 34/32 gear, I was forced to stand up for most of the first kilometre, at an average speed of barely 6km/h! This is where many riders made the mistake of riding too hard. I was overtaken by perhaps 150 people in the first kilometre.
Throughout the climb, there were frequent long pitches at 12%-17%. A lot of people were forced to zig-zag across the road most of the way up. I found it almost impossible to keep the power as low as 70% of FTP: the climb was too variable in gradient with many sections too steep. My cadence was very low, often no more than 40-45rpm. Nevertheless, by keeping a steady pace from the beginning I gradually overtook rider after rider.
The climb took me 1h38 in total, at an average of 78% of my (current) FTP and importantly with no significant efforts above FTP. My anaerobic energy capacity (W’) remained at 100% throughout. Once on the plateau, it turned out to be a succession of steep climbs and descents with few easy sections, once again forcing me to climb at a higher power than I would have wished. Here I allowed myself several brief efforts above FTP in order to get over the shorter climbs. There was a strong, gusty wind making the descents dangerous, so the organisers cut short the distance on the plateau and had us turn around at km 46 instead of km 58, thus shortening the stage by some 24km. Nobody was in a mood to contest this decision!
My position on GC at the end of the day’s stage was 79th. I was 10th in my age category (M55-64), respectively 2’15” and 5’20” behind the two riders in front.
Stage 2: Nizwa to Jebel Haat (and back) 146km / 2320m+
Very different to Stage 1, Stage 2 was to take us to the summit of Jebel Haat, 73 km away, then back by the same road. The first (and last) 50km were essentially flat, with a couple of short climbs, one after 15km and the second after 43km. The 23km climb to Jebel Haat was thus right in the middle of the stage. We were told that this climb was “much easier” than Jebel Akhdar, and that we should expect a reasonably constant 6.5% gradient. The route was timed from 10km after leaving the hotel all the way to the summit of Jebel Haat. Unluckily for the good descenders, the descent was untimed. Timing started again after the descent then ran uninterrupted for the 50km back to Nizwa.
The key to a good result on this stage is to do what it takes to stay with the fastest group possible until the foot of Jebel Haat, then climb at 80% FTP. Next, descend quickly in order to stay with the best riders, and then wait before crossing the timing mat for a good group to form for the 50km ride back to the finish line. Again do what it takes to stay with the group to the finish. The goal is to ride with a group slightly above one’s own level for the 50km out and again for the 50km back.
The first 10km were neutralised. I took advantage of this section to warm-up at a high cadence and to place myself near the front. As expected, the pace accelerated sharply as soon as timing began, with a large lead group of perhaps 50 riders breaking away. I made the effort to go with this group. There was a headwind adding to the false flat climb which limited the pace to 35-40km/h, and I made sure to stay close in the wheels, making several Zone 6 efforts to achieve this. We reached the first climb after 5km and the lead group very quickly split in two and then three. I burned a match taking 2’30” to make this climb at 115% FTP (upper Zone 5), which at the time I judged to be the hardest acceptable pace. It kept me safely in the third group of about 14 riders.
After a short, fast descent the group settled down and we worked very well together for the next 25km, mostly a false flat climb on the valley floor into a headwind. We managed to keep the lead group in sight and reached the foot of the big climb no more than 2 minutes behind them. So far so good! My normalised power for this section was 80% of my FTP.
The group split very quickly on the climb as each of us settled into our personal rhythm. Unfortunately it turned out to be anything but a steady gradient. Mercifully not quite as hard as Jebel Akhdar, the climb was still extremely irregular with many sections at 10% – 15%, and as many as ten or twelve short, steep descents or flat sections. I found myself changing gear constantly in an effort to keep a steady cadence and power output. The climb took me 1h45, at a normalised power just below 80% FTP.
As per the plan, I descended quickly and waited at the feed station just in front of the timing mat for a group to form. We were now riding with the wind three-quarters or fully behind for most of the 50km back, so the speed was much higher than on the way out. With the exception of the two climbs, we averaged 42.5km/h with long periods in excess of 50km/h. The high speed and gusting wind made it harder to work together: where on the outward leg we had two lines in constant rotation, we now had a single line with the lead rider breaking off when he was ready.
Three or four of the riders were particularly strong and I was finding it harder and harder to stay with the group. My normalised power was actually lower than on the way out, but the variability was much higher and I was making frequent hard efforts in Z5 or even Z6. The inevitable result was that the group split in two and I found myself in the second group. We split again when we reached the final climb, 15km from the finish, which I rode at 95% of my FTP. By this time I was handicapped by a lot of pain in both feet, and my power output dropped steadily over the last few km as the pain got worse and worse.
I finally crossed the line in 71st place, seven places better than on Stage 1, bringing me up one place on GC, and up two places in my age category.
Stage 3: ITT from Al Hamra to Misfat Al Abriyinn (9.4km / 359m+)
This was a very short (9.4km) individual time trial, giving very little opportunity to significantly affect the rankings. We were briefed to expect 5km of flat but technical riding around and through the village of Al Hamra, followed by a 4.4km steady climb to Misfat.
There is little choice on such a short time trial. The goal must be to ride at the highest possible pace from start to finish. The obvious mistake to avoid is starting too hard and blowing up on the climb. It is essential to do a thorough warm-up to prepare the body for 25 – 30 minutes of intense effort. If one was fully rested it should be possible to ride at 105% of FTP; given the fact that this was Stage 3 of a tough event only the very fittest and those who recover particularly quickly could hope to achieve this. I decided to start at 95% FTP and then give it everything in the final two kilometres.
I spent 30 minutes warming up, including some progressive accelerations, a couple of hard efforts up a short climb and some high cadence work to get my heart rate up.
I accelerated hard off the start and then settled into my target power band for the first couple of kilometres, trying to keep the cadence high. I quickly overtook the rider who had started 20” before me, which was good for motivation (mine, not his…)
After 2km of wide, easy roads there was a slight rise followed by a totally unexpected steep right hand descent leading to a small roundabout from which we had to take the third exit. Unfortunately visibility was poor and it required both quick reactions and excellent bike-handling skills to take this section well (I later learned that at least two riders fell here and many others struggled to negotiate it safely).
The road rose steeply from the roundabout and then descended again before cutting through the narrow streets of the village, mercifully free of traffic or stray animals. Visibility was again poor and maintaining speed meant frequent hard efforts after braking.
After 5km I exited the village and began the climb. Once again this turned out to be far more irregular than expected, with three flat sections and a short descent. Needless to say the parts which went up were steep, and once again I found myself standing on the pedals in the 34-32 gear. Throughout the climb I pushed as hard as I could, averaging 101% of my FTP. I wanted to finish with no regrets, completely empty. I managed the final minute at 115% FTP and crossed the line feeling suitably exhausted.
I finished the stage in 63rd place overall, taking 5th place in my age category. In spite of the large gain in position (71st on Stage 2, 79th on Stage 1), sadly the time gained on Stage 3 wasn’t quite enough to affect either my 78th place overall. I finished 9th in my age category over the three days. These results are a fair representation of my current state of fitness.
The Haute Route Oman is a worthy addition to the Haute Route series and the cycling calendar in general. It’s obviously great for cyclists based in the Middle East but also thoroughly recommended for those who live further away. Oman is a wonderful country to visit. The legendary hospitality of the local people is not a myth. Just one example: a group who ate in a local restaurant in Misfat on the final day were surprised to find that their meal was entirely paid for by an anonymous Omani!
If you do plan to come in 2020, here are a few suggestions:
- Leave the aero wheels behind. The climbs are very steep and the winds were strong. It was much better to have low-profile climber’s wheels (we used Mavic’s Ksyrium Pro Carbon SL, which are excellent).
- Make sure you fit the largest gears you can. 50-34 and 11/32 is a good combination; we saw several bikes with 34-tooth cassettes which would be even better.
- Come well-prepared for the long steep climbs. There were a significant number of abandons in the first stage. You have been warned!