Saturday, September 19, 2009

Personal Records

During a recent solo three day cycling trip to the Rainier/St. Helens area (See Volcano Tour blog below), I had plenty of solitude while climbing to ponder many subjects. I was riding at what I refer to as “Survival Pace”, an effort level that hopefully enables me to finish multi-day trips involving a lot of miles and climbing. This is a type of riding that I truly enjoy, and I am always baffled when I return from such a trip. After a few days of rest, I usually enjoy a higher fitness level than before I left. No surprise there; the surprise for me is that I seem to gain the type of fitness that is so hard to obtain. I’m talking about that “high end” stuff, what you need when you are trying to ride really hard, maybe harder than you ever have before, going for a Personal Record up a certain favorite climb. Don’t you have to suffer through endless high intensity intervals to make any progress on intense efforts? It seems that simply a lot of time at an endurance pace enables gains at a higher pace.

Following my Volcano Tour, Tracy and I volunteered at the 2009 High Pass Challenge (once again, see blog below), an event I helped develop with the Cascade Bicycle Club. As in 2008, I had chosen to volunteer as a team with Tracy, rather than ride, and I had plenty of time to observe cyclists testing themselves by going for the Gold.

While I enjoy going super hard for 70 or 75 miles like we do every summer Sunday in the Hills of the West Coast, my idea of fun is not to go out and try and ride 100 or more miles in an organized event “solo” at a really hard pace. I have tremendous respect for the athletes who can do so, but I have come to realize that I am not mentally and/or physiologically cut out for that type of punishment. It’s just not my kind of fun, and having fun is why I ride my bicycle so much. My idea of fun, perhaps the most fun thing for me to do on a bicycle, is to do a long ride in the mountains at endurance pace, preferably multiple days in a row. I stop to pee, I stop to pick up food, and occasionally I stop just because I want to stop to take a look at something.

Pretty much everybody I know over the age of 40 (30?) is curious as to how they are doing as the years go by. How does one best compare yourself to yourself? I suppose that there are several methods one can use to document and track your own PR’s. Of course, the most basic is time or speed over a defined distance. Another might be your average heart rate sustained for a given time period. Perhaps the most reliable or consistent method is to use average power in wattage.

Many riders seem to measure themselves and their fitness against other riders by comparing finishing times in organized events, and I’m not sure I fully understand this. Yes, I have done a sub five hour century, and yes, I have earned Gold at the High Pass Challenge. While I have done an STP at 10:20 ride time, it’s just not my thing, and I wonder how that ride compares to a “balls to the wall” 75 miles on a HOWC. For example, when I did that STP in 2003, we had a decent tailwind, and I was in fast big pacelines for the first 120 miles or so, and I did very little work. For the next 40 miles, my partner and I were in smaller pacelines, and sometimes we were on our own. During the last 40 miles, I did almost all of the work on the front, and in fact, I rode much of the time by myself. How could I have evaluated that effort compared to a friend who rode the entire 200+ miles solo, totally on his own, and did so in 11 hours? Who worked harder, and who was stronger? Very likely my friend would have made a much harder effort than I did. How would I compare that 10:20 to a hypothetical 2010 STP where I might finish in 9:30 while riding all 200+ miles as part of a large group of strong riders (like Team HPC, for example) where I did maybe 5% of the work on the front for the full ride? Or how would 2003 stack up against a hypothetical 11 hour time done on a rainy day with a 10mph headwind the whole way to Portland?

So when I say “I” have done a sub five hour century, what does the “I” really mean? First off, it wasn’t “solo”. It seems to me that how fast one can ride their bicycle in an organized century ride or the STP is determined a lot more by with whom they ride and the weather conditions, and a lot less on their own individual strength and fitness level.

For the athlete who loves to punish themselves in an Ironman or 100 mile Ultra running event, I am in awe of the dedication and tolerance for pain that those events certainly demand. From what I can tell, most of those athletes measure their event performance not by their elapsed time, but more by how they finish vs. their peers. During a given event, all competitors must deal with similar conditions, but even in a time trial like a 112 mile Ironman bicycle leg, elapsed time is influenced tremendously by wind, temperature, etc.

Over the last five years or so, I have used certain climbs around town for comparisons. They vary in length from about 5 minutes to 15 minutes. Certainly environmental conditions factor in, but to a lesser extent due to the shorter distance and time. Using a longer climb that has switchbacks is also pretty useful (Sunrise, for example), as the effects of the wind are somewhat negated by the changes in direction from the switchbacks.

For the last two years, I have used a power meter, and while I don’t make full use of its capabilities as a training device, it does provide a handy way to evaluate my performance. If, for example, I set a new personal best on a favorite climb, but at a lower average wattage than on a previous effort, I can assume that my new record was established with a helping wind. My power meter actually measures relative wind, so that is easy to verify. Using average or normalized power output over set time periods is quite an accurate way to tell if you are actually getting stronger. Power is a measurement of how hard you actually are pushing the pedals, regardless of environmental conditions.

I have to be honest, and I think the real reason I don’t like riding organized events at a really hard pace is that I don’t like trusting my fate to large groups of riders who I don’t know. The last 30 miles or so of Ramrod are possibly the scariest miles I have ever ridden, except for those unlighted tunnels in the Pyrenees, but that is another story. Motoring along busy Rt. 410 in the heat and headwind with cars blasting by at 70mph is nerve wracking. Throw in the huge anonymous pacelines one finds oneself in, and the potential for a really bad accident is exponentially compounded.

One way to solve this problem is to do what my friend Justin did in this year’s Ramrod. Justin simply rode away, dropped everybody, rode 410 solo, and finished Ramrod before anyone else. For those who know Justin, this really isn’t a surprise, because he is one of those athletes that do love to test himself in an Ironman or 100 mile Ultra Run.

For me to be excited about another Ramrod, HPC, or STP, I’ll need a different type of motivation. I’ll be there if I can partner up with a friend or a small group of riding friends, stick together, and commit to a strategy. Should Tracy want to tackle something like this, I’ll shelter her from the wind for the whole ride at any pace she desires. Now that would be really enjoyable, and still be a lot of work.

After all, these organized rides are called events, not races, and riding with Tracy or a good friend would be a special event.

2009 High Pass Challenge

The first part of this blog will appear in the October Cascade Courier Newsletter. I also share additional comments that will not be included in the Courier.

On September 13th, the third annual High Pass Challenge was once again blessed by spectacular late summer weather. The weather was dialed in so perfectly that the riders had benign winds on “Windy” Ridge, and a 20+mph tailwind assisting them on the last part of the ride.

The High Pass Challenge is yet another Cascade event superbly produced and organized by the highly efficient Cascade staff and volunteer team. The HPC is the signature event of Cascade’s High Performance Cycling Team, and it is designed to be a very challenging event for fit riders. The High Pass Challenge was created to give “high performance” cyclists a late season hard ride they could then fondly recall over the ensuing rainy months. To make the event unique, it’s a challenge, complete with finisher “precious” medals given to people who ride the route within certain cutoff times.

This year’s event was a sellout! We expect the ride to sell out every year, and I would encourage our loyal High Pass Challenge regulars to register early for the 2010 event, where we will likely again have a 600 rider limit.

Cyclists came from far and wide to this year’s HPC. We had riders from as far away as Boston. CBC staffer Kim Thompson’s brother in law, Steve, flew in from Anchorage just to ride the event! A rider who calls his home Wellington, New Zealand, was visiting Seattle and decided he just had to make the HPC. At the finish line, 110 riders met the Gold Challenge with a finish before 2 PM.

Riders started in Packwood, and then climbed 4600’ up to Mt. St. Helens’ Windy Ridge Viewpoint. From Windy Ridge, the riders returned to Packwood via quiet roads lined by lush forest. Total mileage was 113 miles with 7650’ of climbing. Judging by the feedback on event day, the event route was not only tough, it was also noteworthy for its scenic beauty, as well as the overall low volume of auto traffic.

Many riders enthused about the HPC. CBC Board member and Team HPC member Ed Zuckerman had this to say about the event: “The HPC was a masterfully organized ride. Of course, this is what I have come to expect from the professionalism of the CBC organized events, yet this one in particular had the feel of a perfectly timed Swiss watch!”

Team HPC member Tim Hennings said, “The event was very well run and organized. Thanks a ton to the whole crew! I thought the food stops were terrific. I noticed a younger crowd than at other CBC events - that is a very good trend. I really love the ride; in fact it is my favorite CBC event.”

Reg Norberg, another Team HPC rider commented, “It was a great ride...well supported! I had no traffic problems at all. The last part of the ride on Highway 12 was really fast with the tail wind. Too bad we can't count on that every year!”

From Team HPC member Brian Unger: “It was my first High Pass Challenge, so approaching the ride I was a bit nervous about just how challenging it would be. In the end, I think the Team HPC rides and clinics helped a lot, as well as the camaraderie of the team members during the ride and afterwards. I ended up stopping at the Wakepish stop. The route guide said water only, but I was pleasantly surprised to find bananas as well. My next stop was at Windy Ridge, which was very well stocked. I’d never been to Windy Ridge before. What a spot! The views on the way up were just amazing, and I had a blast descending back down the road. Overall, I have to say it was an incredible ride. The support and logistics by Cascade were great, and like they say in real estate; location, location, location or I suppose in this case route, route, route, and the HPC has it.”

Karl Huber, another Team HPC member reported, “I was all alone out on Cispus Road. No other rider could be seen ahead or behind me, really an eerie feeling for a supported ride. I slowed and relaxed and realized it was so beautiful to be out there on such a gorgeous fall day with no traffic, smooth asphalt and no noise! I feel that most riders who attempt HPC are more experienced than at the typical event, and that keeps the stress level down.”

Finally, a comment from Team HPC member Mark Klausen: “Support for the ride was consistently outstanding. The route was well marked and there were Cascade people at all critical points.”

For more on Team HPC Powered by Cycle U, visit the High Performance Cycling page at

Thanks to all of the volunteers who made this event possible, as well as to the entire Cascade staff for organizing and delivering such a polished event. Special thanks go out to Rod Ludvigsen of the Special Uses Group at Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. Without the support of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, it would not be possible to hold the HPC.

I know I’m looking forward to next year’s High Pass Challenge, and hope to see many of you out there on the route next year!

Now, here are my own personal thoughts that I didn’t think were appropriate for the Courier. I don’t know if anyone else noticed a few things that were different with this year’s High Pass Challenge, but I did. It appears to me that we have reached our target audience. Whereas during the first two HPC’s we had a large number of people not finish within the 10 hour limit, this year we seemed to have a collection of very serious and fit cyclists. While we certainly don’t want the HPC to become “elitist”, it is designed to be a very challenging event for strong riders. It’s not the STP; we have a 600 rider limit, not 10,000, and the route itself is very difficult.

We had a serious accident at this year’s HPC. The crash occurred at the one lane bridge above Iron Creek, and the rider somehow plummeted off of the bridge and fell 30’ or more into the gorge beneath the bridge. The rider is expected to make a full recovery, and that is wonderful news. Anybody who rode in the event likely believes that this rider was extremely fortunate, as the potential for very dire injuries or worse certainly was a possibility.

The purpose of this column is not to lay blame, or dwell on circumstances that may or may not have contributed to the accident. Since there were no eye witnesses and the rider himself has no recollection of the crash, it appears that we will never know what happened. I do think it is worth doing a little postulating about some potential factors in the hope of reducing the chances of another very serious crash.

When we were working on the concept for the HPC, we thought it would be nice to give the event a unique twist; we went with a finishing time medal system to give the riders a challenge. We couldn’t predict whether our medal system would be popular, or how riders would view it. One thing is for sure, we never had any intention in making the event into a “race”. The USFS would never condone such an event, and CBC has no desire in producing one.

In this year’s event, 110 riders managed to finish before 2 PM and earn gold. Based on what I saw, about half of these riders carefully calculated what it would take to get in before 2, and monitored their progress along the way. They stopped for food, chatted with the Cascade staff and volunteers, and seemed to really be enjoying themselves. This is exactly what we envisioned when I started working with Cascade on the event concept.

The other half of the 110 gold earners were clearly involved in a “race”. Of those 50-60 riders, I am going to guess that while all were strong riders; it’s probable that about half of them were highly skilled and experienced riders. Perhaps they had done some stage racing, or maybe they had done a lot of high-speed descending in Europe. Of the 50-60 riders who were really going for it, I am going to guess, and that’s all it is, that half of them were in way over their heads when it came time for the technical descents. We had reports of riders making sketchy passes of other cyclists, crossing the center line, and coming close to riders climbing on the other side of the road. Unlike a race, not only were the roads not closed to car traffic, there were riders (and cars) on the same section of road going in opposite directions. One of the great things about the HPC is that most of the route is in the shade. That said, many of these technical sections lie in the shade, and many of them occur in the only area of the entire route where there is broken pavement, holes, and cracks. At the start of the event, we warned riders about the bridge, about the shade, and about the rough sections.

Every rider who went down Rt. 25 and across the bridge first went up the same bridge. In both directions, there was signage well in advance of the bridge alerting riders of the one lane restriction. There were full sized stop signs at each end of the bridge, made necessary by the fact that it was difficult to see whether there was a car approaching from the other direction. While we will never know what happened on that bridge, it’s hard to imagine that it’s possible a crash could happen to a rider who came to a stop at the bridge.

I rode the HPC in 2007, the inaugural year, and I got the gold. Maybe because it was very cold on the ride, it seemed like all of the riders made stops for food, and to warm up. I never got the sense of taking part in a race; we rode hard just to stay warm! The weather has been perfect the last two years, and clearly a different attitude has prevailed.

Tracy and I volunteered as a team in 2008 and 2009, and it was a blast being around hundreds of riders who were enthused about what they were doing. Due to the accident, we were late getting back to Packwood, and therefore I didn’t see the first riders come in. What I can tell you is that there were no prizes, and outside of those 50 or 60 riders, I don’t think anyone cared who “got first”. After all, there was no first place to get. I suppose I could ride the HPC again, and I likely would try for the gold, but I guarantee you that I won’t be among those first 50 riders coming back down to Iron Creek, no matter what time I arrive at Windy Ridge.

1st Annual Volcano Tour

Day One (September 10th) Miles: 122 Climbing: 7367’ Triple Bypass Route Clockwise: Tracy drops me off in Greenwater at 6:30 AM—Cayuse Pass—Chinook Pass—Clifdell—Nachez—Rimrock Lake—White Pass—Packwood

Day Two Miles: 80 Climbing: 6000’ Skate Creek Loop Route Counter-Clockwise: Packwood—Steven’s Canyon—Backbone Ridge—Paradise—Longmire—Ashford—Skate Creek Rd.—Packwood

Day Three Miles: 76 Climbing: 6663’ HPC Route: Packwood—Randle—Iron Creek Campground—Windy Ridge—Iron Creek CG—Tracy meets me as planned and we drive to Packwood, where it is 100 degrees

Day Four Tracy and I volunteer at the third annual High Pass Challenge

I intend to make this an annual September trip, and perhaps doing it solo is really the way to go. I had a blast! The trip requires a perfect weather window, so one must be able to act on short notice. Also, it is so much more pleasurable to be riding after Labor Day, when the summer Rainier crowds have vanished. Ideally, every year I will tie this trip in with volunteering at the High Pass Challenge, unless I ride in the event.

I really enjoy the base camp concept. Not having to relocate to a new motel everyday is nice, and I seem to rest much better. Having my recovery food already in place enables me to relax and enjoy myself. Before I even checked in to the Cowlitz River Lodge, I rolled by the grocery store and stocked up.

It’s important to think out your timing and loop direction, as your choice can greatly influence traffic conditions and the weather you will experience. Going mid-week and off-peak in September makes the weather a little riskier, but guarantees extremely light traffic.

Having ridden a lot at Rainier, I kind of know the traffic patterns. On this trip, it wouldn’t have made much difference, as there was hardly any traffic anywhere, even over White Pass (Rt. 12) mid-day. As far as the weather, I was happy to be on Skate Creek Rd. at the end of my second day. At the “Packwood 4 miles” sign, it was 73 degrees, and I was in the shade. Four miles later, I was in the sun big time, and it was at least 90 degrees. While I didn’t enjoy the rough road conditions on Skate Creek, I definitely enjoyed the shade.

Going to Packwood to ride is not like going to a quaint village in the French Alps, but the people are friendly, and the location is ideal (well, not as ideal as Chamonix). The Cowlitz River Lodge offers a free continental breakfast, mini-fridges in the room, and a super cold air conditioner—all nice to have on those long cycling days. I guess the major issue is a lack of good restaurants, but I never have a problem finding something I like when I have a voracious appetite going day after day. Saving those three pieces of pizza from Thursday night’s dinner was the best choice I made on the whole trip. Upon returning from the Skate Creek Loop, I fired up the microwave and was eating right after I set foot in my motel room.

There are at least four really good (and really hard) days of riding available using Packwood as a base. In addition to what I did, it would be a great out and back ride to Sunrise via Cayuse Pass. I rode White Pass from the east, but riding from the west (Packwood) would give you an almost 3500’ climb. The next time I ride the Triple Bypass, I’d like to do it in a counter-clockwise direction, which would require doing White Pass first from the west. Finishing up the ride with a long descent from the top of Chinook Pass would be classic.

On Thursday, September 10th, Tracy dropped me off around 6:30am (I drove down and then she went to work!) in Greenwater, and I forgot to remove my trail running shoes that I had driven with! I wound up strapping them to the Camelback pack I used to get my stuff down to my Packwood base camp. This gave me the aerodynamics of a refrigerator, making descending a noticeably slower process. I had never worn a pack while riding a bicycle for an extended time, and it really wasn’t that bad, despite the heat and 122 miles I rode that day. I still prefer using my Moots Tailgater system for fast and light touring, but I only had to transport stuff for one day on this trip, and total weight was only about 4 pounds, even with the extra shoes.

As usual, a minimalist approach was required, and all I took with me were a pair of flip flops (plus the extra running shoes!), a Capilene t-shirt, and nylon running shorts. Yes, I had a toothbrush, but not much else, and I didn’t bring a book. This was a big mistake, as we have not watched cable television for over 7 years, and I was a little bored after the day’s ride was done. I tried the TV, but it was just so bad! I wound up taking my time at dinner, and going to bed early.

The plan was for Tracy to drive down from Seattle on Saturday and meet me somewhere on the return route from Windy Ridge. I started about an hour later than I planned, as I decided to linger and chat at breakfast, and then wait for the sun to warm Rt. 12 down to Packwood. After Tracy met me near Iron Creek, we headed back into the heat at Packwood, and later on enjoyed a great dinner hosted by Steve H. and other Team HPC friends. The next day’s weather was perfect for the third annual High Pass Challenge, making for a great conclusion to my Volcano Tour.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Chelan Redux and 8-30-09 Hills of the West Coast

As I was riding in Chelan last weekend, I was trying to think of a better town in Washington to serve as a cycling base camp. About all I could come up with is Seattle! The variety of terrain in the Chelan area is impressive, especially for climbing aficionados. You can do a traffic free 1500+’ climb to Echo Lake Ski Area literally out Tim’s front door, and that’s just for starters.

I really enjoyed riding the Chelan Century Challenge in June, and thanks to Tim’s invite, I was able to repeat much of the route. Tracy came along with me Thursday evening, and Tim even encouraged her to invite friends so that she would not be a cycling orphan. Mike and Jen arrived on Friday, and while Mike took a day to go hiking, Tracy and Jen hit the local wineries.

In addition to all of the available activities, the Chelan area also provides very well designed roads for cycling, and a local population that seemed quite comfortable with us.

Tim has had his house in Chelan for 16 years, and has cycled thousands of miles in the area. Much to my surprise, and his, in the last month he has managed to discover yet two more outstanding climbs. While I am sworn to secrecy, what I can say is that new development is not always all bad; there can be an upside for cyclists. When the necessary new road provides stunning views and dead ends high above Lake Chelan…I’ve said too much already! By the way, Tim’s house is on the far lakeshore about 1500’ below my left shoulder.

During Saturday’s ride, we were keeping track of our climbing to mileage ratio. After 21.5 miles, we already had 2895’ of climbing. We wound up with4800’ over 46.5 miles. Kind of like Cougar Mountain on steroids.

Speaking of steroids, and Cougar Mountain, perhaps some type of extra special juice could have helped 15 cyclists survive last Sunday’s HOWC. Here is Luke’s report on the final HOWC of the year at “summer pace”:

“We closed out the final month of furious summer pace HOWC riding with a climb packed day. The plan was to do two hard climbs on each of Cougar, Squawk and Tiger. Rather than thinking about any climb as ‘optional’, each was billed as having a ‘base’ and an ‘extension’. The idea is everyone does the base route and some choose to do the extensions. We had 15 riders today and I knew it would be tough to finish the entire menu:

Montreaux – Base to top of Village Park, extension up 173rd
Zoo – We all did it all! (Through the curves was Base)
Squawk - We all did it all! (Up 12th to Wildwood was Base)
North Tiger – Base to big cluster of mail boxes, extension up to end of road
South Tiger – Base to fire station, extension to top of 154th
Licorice on Cougar– Base to the start of SE 100th loop, extension through loop

We scratched South Tiger due to time limitations. The group hung tough through the first four climbs. SteveH had to bolt early and ditched the last climb. About 2/3rds of the remaining riders followed him back.

Jeff, Mike and I completed the entire route and several others did almost all of it. Credit goes to everyone for enduring some hard climbs today. It was nice to have three HOWC leaders there to keep everything smooth – thanks Emil and Jeff. Stand out climbing performances were delivered by Jeff and Mike. We had super strong, late-ride pulling after the climbs were finished from all the guys who remained.
- - -
Rider note: Typically, folks do not jump at the chance to lead the pack back over the bridge to the tunnel. The person who finally pulls gets the reward of being dropped - riders emerge from the draft and blaze past as the bridge deck turns upwards.

It was a little different today. Mike instinctively jumped up in front and led us all the way to the tunnel at a furious pace. His first target was the rider who had exercised a sketchy / annoying pass as the HOWC massed around that hairpin turn out of Enatai. That did not take him too long. He hammered on – climb included – up to the tunnel. Jeff and I were right behind him and neither thought to jump past as we approached the tunnel. We all just hung in the draft and appreciated his hard, late-ride effort.”

Sounds like everyone rode hard, and showed some class as well. I’ve always thought it very bad form to let someone do all of the work across the I-90 Bridge, and then blast by him on the bridge ramp. Better to ride up alongside and thank him for the effort, rather than make the rider in front a sacrificial lamb.

After all, camaraderie is really what group rides are all about, at least our group ride.