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.


Cascade Cyclist said...

I agree...if you want to compare yourself to other riders, the only real way to do it is to compete--and if you are someone who is focused on wattage or average mph, then time trials are for you.

Since 99% of us can't compete at a level that is really very meaningful, I think the role of racing or hard group rides like HoWC is to get in a seriously hard workout--to give you the fitness edge you need to really enjoy the kinds of touring you have done...

Like on the front pic on your blog, which makes Paula want to buy a bike with skinny tires and head to Europe!

padre angulo said...

some great thoughts. for me, i take the Ty Webb approach and use height to measure myself against other riders.

Tom Meloy said...

Padre, No doubt you stack up well in the height department, but who the hell is Ty Webb?

I thought about trying racing a few years ago. I think I would like a lot of things about it...just not the frequent falling off part. Decided to leave that to others.

John McGuire said...

Hi Tom,

Thanks for your blog post. I've been looking forward to your HPC comments and enjoyed reading them. I think I first found your blog a couple of months ago from a link in HOWC listing on the CBC calendar and have enjoyed reading your accounts of cycling in Western Washington. It has been helpful to me in planning my rides and learning a bit more about cycling in this part of the state.

I got back in to long distance road cycling this year after several years away due to work/parenthood responsibilities limiting my riding to commuting and occasional shorter weekend rides. My children are a little older now and work is more predictable, so I decided it was time ratchet my mileage up and get back in shape. I had done several centuries and a couple of Ironmans back in the 1990's, but before this summer it had been more than 10 years since I had ridden more than 40 miles in a day. Early in the year, I put the HPC on my calendar as motivation to get out there and ride longer and harder, and I want to thank you and the CBC for planning and putting on such a great ride--Beautiful course, nice organization, and great food stops with friendly volunteers. Though I didn't really have a goal finishing time for the ride, I ended up riding well and "got the gold", which was a bit surprising to me. Even though it had been awhile since I had done something like this, my prior experiences seemed to help me with pacing and the mental aspects of a long ride. The tailwind at the end also didn't hurt.

I briefly met you at the Iron Creek food stop on the way down from Windy Ridge. As I continue to regain my fitness, I'm hoping that I'll be ready to join some HOWC rides this year or next.

Good riding, and thanks again for putting on a great event.


Tom Meloy said...


Thanks for the nice words, and congratulations on getting the Gold at the HPC.


Pinehurst Bound said...

I am trying to figure out how to compare a century ride to playing 54 holes of golf in one day, walking and carrying my own bag, on a Monday at South Hills CC. A former JDC.

Tom Meloy said...

Well, if you wore a headlamp and finished 72 holes...we might have a valid comparison.