Friday, July 31, 2009

RAMROD Official “Race” Report

My buddy Justin was the first to cross the line yesterday at the 2009 RAMROD. Here are a few comments from the “winner”:

“A guy at the aid station at mile 78 mentioned that I was the first through, and I managed to stay there through the finish. It was a scorcher...over 100 at the finish. Towards the end, I walked into a creek with my shoes on to cool a hotspot. My shoes were dry 10 minutes later. It took a long solo effort, but I had a solid ride, and managed 8:25 (8:37 total time) for the 160 mile distance. There were some fast dudes on fancy TT bikes trying to reel me in on 410, but the lead I had off Crystal Mt was enough.”

About his race strategy:

“It certainly wasn't a race. If it had been a race, I would have gone faster and would have been much more willing to suffer. I pushed an early aggressive pace to try to bang out as many miles as I could before it got hot, expecting the heat would force me to back off, which it did.

That said, being a competitive guy, when I'm told I'm in the ‘lead’ my inclination is to not get caught, so I continued to ride somewhat hard. No one likes getting passed, whether you're racing or training...although sometimes I am MORE tolerant of it in races because I am more focused on my own pace/rhythm.”

About the event itself:

“RAMROD used a start window...start anytime from 5-7am, although I passed a couple of riders who said they started at 3:30. The organizers didn't do anything to encourage racing. Quite the opposite, in fact, as several water stops had not yet been set up when I got there. I think some guys will approach an event like RAMROD as a world championship, others will approach it as relaxed tour around the mountain, and everything in between.”

That sounds a lot like the High Pass Challenge!

Congrats to Justin for “winning” his first RAMROD.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The French Are Likely Pissed Off, and So Am I

The 2009 Tour de France is over, not officially of course, but for all practical purposes, Alberto Contador can be declared the winner. Yes, I know I picked Lance Armstrong to win, and he is riding strong…but not strong enough. Unless Contador falls off of his bike, Armstrong (or anybody else) can’t win, in my opinion.

I was really looking forward to the possibility of having an exciting TDF to follow this year. What really sucks is that what we have had largely has resembled a parade for the first two weeks of the Tour, at least as far as the GC contenders are concerned. We finally get a stage on Sunday up to Verbier with a mountain top finish hard enough to make a selection, and a selection indeed was made. There was Contador absolutely dominant, and instead of getting to watch actual racing, he simply rode away. Sound familiar? You can’t fault Bruyneel, as he has a winning strategy refined over seven years of Lance Armstrong victories.

The name at the top of the leader board may have changed, but the 2009 TDF is a Tour pretty much like any other Tour, except for the (many) years where we had drug controversies to intrigue us. Even then, for the most part, we had one guy (guess who) totally dominate the race to the point that there was no suspense at all after the first mountain top finish. The French fans were sick of the dominant American, and now they will resent the dominant Spaniard. By the looks of Contador, he has the potential to be every bit as dominant as Armstrong was, spoiling the party of the Tour for years to come. Armstrong is potentially the only thing standing in the way of Contador winning seven in a least the string could be broken in 2010.

I don’t know what the TDF organizers were thinking when they came up with this year’s route. The route really doesn’t matter in determining the winner; the strongest wins, and that is how it should be with one of the most grueling endurance contests in sports. What does matter is how the route plays out in terms of suspense. The first day time trial was certainly interesting to watch, but then we had the usual mostly boring sprint stages. The incredible mountains of the Pyrenees, where so many memorable moments in tour history have occurred, were rendered absolutely insignificant. The Tourmalet was totally marginalized by having the stage finish 70km from the top; it looked like the peloton was just cruising over this magnificent climb that has factored heavily in so many tours. Boring!

So once more, the greatest cycling race in the world is reduced to a couple of weeks of watching the strongest riders in the world sit on each other’s wheels, until we finally get a stage with a hard finish. The strongest guy goes, no one can follow, and the Tour is pretty much over. From then to the finish the leader just defends, which is pretty easy, seeing as nobody can stay with him. At least this year a few have tried; back in the Armstrong days everyone was afraid to even attack, lest they blow up and hurt their chance for a top ten finish.

For me, the 2009 Giro was so much more interesting than the TDF. There were numerous mountain top finishes, and all of them were steep and hard, offering plenty of chances to attack. The strongest rider won, but Dennis Menchov couldn’t win one stage (the long time trial) and just sit back and follow wheels. He was attacked repeatedly, and Menchov had to fight off Deluca and others until the very end. Yes, the right guy won the race, but the route made it so much more interesting than the 2009 TDF has been so far.

About the only thing interesting I have read about this year’s Tour concerns just how fast Contador ascended the road to Verbier. So fast, that it is estimated his vertical ascent in meters per hour (VAM) of 1900 is the largest ever recorded in the TDF. Faster even than the huge numbers Marco Pantani and others racked up during the drug addled late 90’s. Things have been very quiet at this year’s Tour regarding doping, but at least one source has analyzed the Contador climb and raised some provoking questions:

Phil Liggett keeps promising fireworks during the following day’s stage, but then tomorrow comes, and with it another procession up and over the mountains. We get a lot more action during a typical Hills of the West Coast ride!

So Lance Armstrong isn’t going to win the 2009 Tour de France, and it’s not because he’s 37 years old. Less than a year to prepare was simply not enough to enable him to get back to the very top end of the elite level of the sport. Next year Armstrong will be 38, but he will have had two years to train and compete at the highest level. I bet he’ll have a big smile on his face when he is flying home in his private jet after the 2009 Tour is over.

After all, he may wind up being the second strongest guy, and now he knows a lot more about the strongest guy and how he rides and wins. Armstrong is a smart rider, and I think he is doing his homework right now for the 2010 Tour. He must like what he sees; once again it’s just one guy dominating the race, and that means really there is only one rider he must figure out how to beat. Give Armstrong time to build his best form, and then we might have an interesting race, especially if Contador is on a different team.

None of the "old guard", save Armstrong, have any reasonable chance of beating Contador, and Contador is clearly much stronger than his young peers. Armstrong doesn't appear to be intimidated by Contador at all; in fact, if you read between the lines, Armstrong may think he has already figured out what to do for 2010. He'll be back, you can count on it, and he'll have a team built around him. One thing this guy is not is a loser, and second place is just another loser to Armstrong.

I like his chances.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

7-18-09 Team HPC Heads for the Hills

Miles: 45-55 Climbing: 4200-5200’ Route: Sam Smith Park (west of Mt. Baker tunnel)—Mercer Island—Honda Hill—Hard Route or Really Hard Route Option featuring various combinations of the following climbs: Somerset the hard way/164th/Montreaux (Village parkway)/Zoo Rd./Newcastle Golf Club/Cougar Mountain from the south/Lakemont/Pinnacle off of Cougar Mountain Way…did I forget anything? Attrition Rate: Kind of hard to determine, but extremely low!

Today was our second annual climbing themed team ride, and like last year, it went splendidly. Not only was the weather perfect for our 21 riders, at times it seemed like there were more cyclists than cars out on Cougar Mountain. We managed to ride out and back mostly as one group, and while we were in the Cougar Mountain area there were two basic route options outlined.

Riders selected the Hard or Really Hard option and the two groups split at Eastgate Elementary on Newport Way. As I had hoped, small groups formed, and today’s ride was a little different than our other team rides of 2009. Riders were armed with a map and a re-group time. I think most of our riders did at least one more climb after they were done with the basic route, and several masochists likely repeated Montreaux or Zoo.

Given the self-sufficient nature of the ride, I can’t give a blow-by-blow rundown of the ride like I sometimes do for the HOWC. I’m guessing if I were omniscient, I’d be writing that everyone worked hard, no one dogged it, and there was a lot of camaraderie within all of the various groups.

Everything went so smoothly today, and everybody seemed to really have a great time, maybe we should do two team climbing rides next year? In 2008, we had a second ride out at Squak Mountain, but I think I scared a lot of people with the route description. There really isn’t an “easy” way up Cougar Mountain, but at Squak the options are more limited, and everything is steep and long. Based on what I saw today, I think that it’s a pretty good shot that we will have a lot of riders eager to attack both Cougar and Squak in 2010.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

7-12-09 HOWC Never Assume Anything

Miles: 44 Climbing: 2250’ Route: Downtown Seattle—Mercer Island—Enatai—Meydenbauer Bay—Medina—Kirkland—Downtown Bellevue—Mercer Island clockwise loop—Downtown Seattle Attrition Rate: 0%

Our ride got off to a really crappy start this morning. Luke fell off just 10 minutes into the ride, and thankfully came away with just bruises and road rash. Luke went straight, and Bob went left, the two of them touched wheels, and Luke took the fall. He also took full blame for the crash, but I wonder if I could have prevented it. All I had to do was say, “Left turn.” It never crossed my mind because we had been at this spot a thousand times, and never done anything but go left. Luke has likely made that left fifty times, and he has even led the ride by himself through there. Bob and everyone else just went left without concern. The problem was that Luke was on the left, and there wasn’t a space for him to squeeze through. We were all chatting, just warming up, not going hard at all, and Luke said he simply wasn’t paying attention.

Inevitably, there is a lesson to be learned when someone hits the ground. The takeaway for me today is to never assume anyone is thinking the same as everyone else, don’t try and read someone’s mind, and always call things out, even if you feel a little foolish. At any specific time in a long group ride, I think it’s safe to say that at least one person is not fully focused 100% on the ride. Riders should intuitively be aware of the need to work as a group and help each other out, but from now on, I’m going to make a point to be a little over the top about this during the talk at the ride start. Not because of what happened today, but because of what could happen down the road.

Despite the pretty low speed, Luke came away a little banged up. I’m glad he’s okay, and that got me to thinking, as I watched the Tour de France today, I wonder how these really fragile-looking little guys hit the deck and, most of the time, bounce right back up. The recent stage from Girona to Barcelona in the wet saw some 30+ rider’s crash, and most of the crashes occurred in the last few miles of the race, when the peloton was just hauling. Riders were hitting the ground like bowling pins at 35mph, and it is always just business as usual. I expected broken bones by the dozens, but the riders just jumped back on. During today’s stage, the camera cut to a rider on the descent of the Tourmalet. His head-to-toe kit was so ripped to shreds that it looked like he had rolled down a scree slope for about a mile. Yet at the end of the stage, there he was with the peloton, bombing through the narrow little streets elbow-to-elbow with the main bunch. I guess one can’t assume these riders are made of glass after all.

There are other assumptions you can never make about riders or about a ride. For example, despite the fact that it’s mid-July, never assume that the ride will be dry. I went 5175 miles on my 09 S-Works Tarmac SL2 without it seeing a drop of rain…until today. Two months without rain, we were due, and it is STP weekend after all. We made a weather-based group decision in Kirkland to modify our planned 65 mile route, as it appeared that we would soon be engulfed by storm clouds if we continued north. We would have made it back unscathed, except we threw in Mercer Island after adjusting our on-the-road weather forecast back to favorable. Nevertheless, riding the last 4.5 miles in a hard rain was infinitely preferable to riding back from some far-off distant land. It’s July—who wants to get wet now? There will plenty of time for that in the winter.

One can also never assume that everyone has actually read the ride description of what it is we do on the HOWC. Not to pick on our out of town guest from Princeton, New Jersey, but clearly he didn’t have a grasp as to what the ride is about. He emailed me with a question, but it wasn’t related to the pace of the difficulty of the ride. There shouldn’t be a question about pace, because it is spelled out loud and clear in the ride description. I’m not picking on our visitor, because over the six years we have been doing the HOWC, we have had a number of out of town guest riders, and I can’t recall a single one that we didn’t wind up waiting for during the ride. Perhaps it is because Seattle’s steep hills breed very fit riders, but we have had riders from San Francisco crack famously, and they have some steep ramps down there. Based on our experience with the ride, one must assume that Seattle riders just ride pretty hard. Yeah, I like that. We’ll go with that explanation.

Last, but not least, never assume anyone has class just because they are riding a bike. On the east side of Mercer Island, we were doing a solid, but not super-hard paceline when we went by a solo rider in team kit. As they often do, he latched on and proceeded to sit back and wheelsuck the entire away around the island. He never asked if he could join us, much less offer to help and take a turn on the front. At the end of the loop, rather than go to the front and take a turn, he hammered up the hill back up to the top of the east I-90 Bridge ramp, using the legs he saved sitting in the draft. For some reason this really was offensive to me, and I dug deep and bridged up to him, catching him at the top of the climb. It took a pretty hard effort, and I didn’t have anything clever to say to him, or a lot of energy to say it. As we rolled down to the ramp, he said something to me like, “Nice ride, thanks for doing the work.” Despite the word, “Thanks,” being in there, I just looked at him in silence. Maybe he got the point, maybe not. But one thing I know is that he didn’t have the satisfaction of getting to that stop sign by himself like he must have been sure he would. I guess the final assumption of the day may have been made by this tag-on rider: We’re a group of unfriendly cyclists. But we’re not.

We’re a really friendly group. We like to ride hard, climb high, and ride fast (as long as it’s not raining). And if you want to hop on, just ask.

I hope to see you on the road.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

7-5-09 HOWC: Shootout at the OK Corral

Miles: 70 Climbing: 4511’ Route: Downtown--Mercer Island--Lake Washington Blvd. East—89th—May Valley—148th--Jones Road—Cedar Grove—Lake Francis—200th—Tiger Mountain climb (optional)—Issaquah Hobart Rd. to Issaquah—Wildwood climb of Squak Mountain (optional)—Newport Way—Somerset climb via 150th (optional)—Mercer Island—Downtown Attrition Rate: 0%

Just like Christmas, sometimes you get what you ask for. I inserted one little new sentence into the weekly ride description, hoping to make it even more abundantly clear as to what we do on a summer HOWC. The line “Riders should be capable of taking short pulls of between 23-25mph” seemed to make a selection even before the group assembled. I added this line because that’s how we ride, and on quite a few rides, it’s actually been 23-25++. Considering the HOWC is somewhat climbing focused and not a paceline type of ride, we cook along pretty good.

It’s never fun to turn someone around on a ride, but it’s also not good when the integrity of the ride is compromised. Dealing with riders who are in over their heads is even more awkward when you have a big group, and I figure the use of the new line would tend to reduce the group to a smaller sized number of very capable riders.

Looking at the bunch this morning, I knew right away we had more than a capable group. I knew them all from past HOWC rides, and what I had was a group of eight gunslingers. All were capable of the type of effort described in the ride listing, and I knew they wouldn’t be taking any prisoners. Shootout at the OK Corral, here we come.

Just as I thought, after a very mellow warmup, the ride went off at a really hard pace. There wasn’t much chatter early on. I felt pretty good at the start, but I seemed to fade early. Normally my strength seems to build as the ride goes on, but I knew early that I didn’t have “it”. If I were to survive, I’d need to play some defense.

For all of the simply brilliant summer weather we have had, today was the first day not one person started with armwarmers. At 8 AM, the air was humid, the wind was calm, and we all sensed it would be a cooker, in more ways than one. Speaking of the weather, Emil has jumped through the hoops to become a CBC Ride Leader, and he told me that he would like to lead the HOWC through the fall and winter. When I started the ride six years ago, I envisioned the HOWC as a year round group ride, and now that I have all the help I get from other people leading the ride we will get back to it.

Defense I did play, and along the way, I decided to configure the ride to include three very hard, yet optional climbs. One could go up and over, or circumvent each climb by going around it and meeting up with the group after the climb. As usual on Sunday, we had a friendly group, the ride turned conversational, and we had a great time. Not that I had a lot of opportunity to sit back and ponder it, but I did ask myself if I was the only rider today who was not in their 30’s (or 20’s?).

Towards the end of the ride, after the caffeine kicked in I felt relatively strong. It wasn’t that I had brewed up some magical power; I think the group just came back a little to me. Sitting out a few really hard climbs paid some dividends, and some of the early protagonists slowed the pace a hair. Even Luke seemed to poop out a little, and Luke is normally indefatigable and super strong throughout the whole ride. Jeff put in a solid showing, especially considering that he is still recovering from his first Ironman two weeks ago. Jordan never slowed down for a second, and I’m not sure anyone was disappointed when he left the ride a little early to shortcut to home. Not that Jordan isn’t a super guy, he is; but man, did he lay down some serious pacemaking.

And what about the Shootout at the OK Corral? It never materialized, and everyone worked as a cohesive group. We stopped at stop signs, and no matter who happened to be on the front, they rolled off easy until the “all on” call came from the back. Sure, there was plenty of the usual HOWC competitive fire, but we rode together, stayed together, and finished together.

What a concept.

I hope to see you on the road.