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How to win a 24-hour time trial

By Spencer Powlison

The low point came in the middle of the night. It happened in a pitch-black porta-potty, along a rough chipseal road in Glen Rose Texas, not far from Fort Worth. Christie Tracy was having a breakdown.

It wasn’t because she had already logged about 264 miles of solo riding in the 24-hour national time trial championships. The riding wasn’t the issue. It was her sweat-soaked skinsuit — she couldn’t get the damn thing off. Her husband must have heard her crying or at least realized it was taking too long for a pee-break. He knocked on the door, helped her regroup, and got her back on the bike.

This is all quite normal, Tracy says.

“It probably sounds totally insane to somebody who’s never done an ultra-race before but you just push yourself to such extremes that if you let your guard down for a moment everything comes rushing in,” she told The Pro’s Closet. “You have to find a way to put your wall back up and block everything out for the rest of the race.”

Christie Tracy 24-hour time trial
Christie Tracy on the rough chipseal roads of Texas. Photo: Lee McDaniels

And that’s the kind of attitude that led her to victory in that national championship event on September 19-20. She rode 448.5 miles on a 26.5-mile loop, beating the previous course record. Not only that, but Tracy also beat all comers in the 24-hour championships — men and women alike.

By this point, you’re probably wondering: How is it even physically possible to ride that distance in one go? How can a cyclist maintain an 18.7mph average for 24 hours?

We were wondering that too. Fortunately, Tracy is part of the Saris + The Pro’s Closet (STPC) Zwift team, so she’s easy to get a hold of, despite the fact that she has shifted gears to prep for the inaugural UCI Zwift World Championships in December. Conquering a 24-hour time trial championship isn’t simple, but there are a few key reasons why Tracy is so good at ultra-endurance cycling events.

Christie Tracy 24-hour time trialTracy credited Zwift racing for building her mental toughness. Photo courtesy Christie Tracy

Experience

Although Tracy only got into cycling in 2013 after an ill-fated sprint triathlon lured her away from the world of Crossfit (long story — for another time!), she’s racked up the miles in ultra-endurance events.

In 2017, she came into her own, winning the Texas 12-hour time trial championships and the world 12-hour time trial championships later that year. She’s figured out the fundamental discipline of good pacing in these epic efforts.

“You really have to race your own race. You can’t latch onto somebody and keep them in your sight because you’ll run yourself into the ground trying to match their numbers,” she said. “What will often happen in this type of race is you start out slow and steady with numbers you know you can hold for the full 24 hours and other people who maybe aren’t as experienced or maybe are a little bit over-confident in their ability, will go out harder and halfway or three-quarters of the way through the race will bonk really hard and you’ll end up overtaking them.”

Detail-oriented focus

For Tracy, a 24- or 12-hour time trial is simply a giant math equation waiting to be solved. She’s so analytical that her friends sometimes tease her for it. But if that’s the mindset required to survive almost 450 miles of riding, so be it. She maps out all of the factors in a spreadsheet to plan her race: elevation, wind speed, nutrition, power output, energy expenditure, and likely much more than any of us can comprehend.

Also, beyond the numbers, Tracy realized that one bike was not enough for this challenge. In fact, she rode two different bikes to ease the strain on her body. She had both her Cervelo time trial bike and her Factor gravel bike (with slick tires, of course) ready to ride.

“I’d do about 100 miles on one bike and switch to the other,” she said. “That really helped change up muscle recruitment and it changed the pressure points throughout the race. It was awesome.”

Support IRL and beyond

It goes without saying that her husband Jamie was a huge part of Tracy’s success in the 24-hour championships. Whether it was rescuing her from the porta-potty in the middle of the night or keeping her liquid-only fueling system organized, he was in the pits, at the ready. (And yes, you read correctly — there was no solid food to speak of in her race diet.)

But beyond him, Tracy had a network of friends from the STPC team that surprised her on race-day with notes of support from all over the world. Her GPS head-unit was set to receive text messages, and to her surprise, Tracy was hearing from them throughout the 24-hour effort.

“They live all over the world — you have Anna in New Zealand, Caroline was over in the UK now,” Tracy said. “Unbeknownst to me they had coordinated and they were texting me all throughout the race with encouragement from their various time zones. It was really great, and that helps you.”

Christie Tracy at a pit stop
In the middle of the night, Tracy had a breakdown, but she recovered and went on to win the 24-hour national TT championships. Photo: Lee McDaniels

Mental toughness

For all of her experience and data-driven planning, Tracy came into the 24-hour nationals relatively unprepared. In years past, she’d logged epic days where she’d pedal to a century group ride, roll with the bunch, and then rack up another 100 miles afterward. Twelve-hour training rides were common. But amid the pandemic, all she could muster were five-hour days at most.

Instead, she turned to the world of Zwift, where she quickly caught the bug and fell in with the STPC team. Even though e-racing is short and intense, Tracy developed newfound mental strength from repeated trips to the pain cave in the world of virtual cycling.

“Going into [the 24-hour race], I didn’t have the volume, but had the mental training from Zwift,” she said. “My thought process going into it was that I was much better at suffering than previously, and I was already pretty dang good at it. I might start to suffer a little earlier but my mental training is so much better that I can push through it.”

As you’d expect from someone who carefully plans out her races on spreadsheets, Tracy nailed it with that prediction too.

Christie Tracy wins 24-hour time trial nationals
Tracy was all smiles when she crossed the line a winner after almost 450 miles. Photo: Lee McDaniels

About 23 hours into the race, there was only one lap remaining. Competitors try to ride as many laps as possible in the 24-hour period, and they cannot start a lap after that timeframe has ended. So, first across the line would win, and this last lap was coming down to the wire.

She was only 20 seconds ahead of the next rider, Andrew Willis. He also happens to be a good friend of Tracy’s and the one who got her into the ultra-cycling discipline.

If Willis caught her, she’d have to drop back four bike lengths because drafting is strictly forbidden by ultra-cycling rules. If she wanted to pass him back, she’d have to do so in 30 seconds or less. So, Tracy tapped into the mental strength she’d been developing throughout 2020 and drove the pace as hard as she could.

“This is where Zwift comes in,” she said. “I should not have been able to hold the numbers that I held on that last lap. I was in so much pain I can’t even put it into words. I had been leading for 23-and-a-half hours, and I’m not going to let you pass me at this point in the race. I’m literally crying and screaming on my bike because I have no other way to let the pain out. I’m not going to back down and get passed. Anyone I passed must have thought I was insane.”

Whatever the other riders might have thought, her screaming worked. She crossed the line first and immediately collapsed. Where was Willis though?

It turned out that he’d buried himself so deep trying to catch Tracy that he’d cracked and stopped to lie on the side of the road for a few minutes to recover. He rolled in a little while later, winning the men’s division. Afterward, Willis told her he had no intention of beating her — he simply wanted to finish together after the massive ride. She felt a little bad that it had come to this, but they had a good laugh afterward.

Tracy says she’s open to another run at a 24-hour race in the future, but for now, she’s heading back into the pain cave to tune up her top-end for Zwift racing. She’s one of six women selected to represent team USA in the UCI World Championships, December 8-9.

If the intensity of Zwift racing helped her grind out that final 26.5-mile lap in Texas, who knows? Maybe 24-hour racing will give her an extra edge when it comes time to race for a rainbow jersey in the world of virtual cycling.


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