Friday, July 30, 2010

Michele's Maui Mountain Madness

On Wednesday, July 21st I rode 36.5 miles all uphill to the top of Haleakala at 10,023’, starting from sea level in Paia. For me, Haleakala ranks as one of the greatest and hardest climbs that I have done.

Later in the week, Michele, my niece from Pittsburgh who is a novice cyclist, was in Honolulu for business and was able to join me on Maui for a one day bike ride. While at the Island Biker picking up her rental bike, I talked with her while she was waiting for her flight from Honolulu to go over three choices of route for our Saturday ride:

1) Some part of the West Maui Mountains loop that I did for my second ride on Thursday
2) The Upcountry ride in the Haleakala wind shadow
3) The monster climb of 10,023’ Haleakala itself—I knew I wanted to do this climb a second time, but surely it was ridiculous to think that Michele would want to attempt it, much less complete it

Michele didn’t even hesitate, telling me, “I’m usually up for a challenge.” A challenge it was to be, and Andrew at Island Biker was nice enough to dig up a size 52 rental with a triple chainring/27 cog combo.

Since the best part of the route starts at around 3000’ of elevation, that is where I thought Michele and I should start; therefore Michele would attempt to climb 7000’ in 22.6 miles (5.9% average grade) to the top, and she would have to make this attempt in extremely tough conditions.

There are many blog posts featuring descriptions of the ride up (and down) Haleakala:

Watch 2010 Tour de France 7th place finisher Ryder Hesjedal set the world record:

See the route on the Maui Cycling Map:

When Michele and I started the ride on Saturday, we agreed we would ride at our own pace, and I would check on her at various intervals. Honestly, I wasn’t sure how far we would be going, so I made my first stop after about 15 minutes.

On Wednesday when I did this climb solo, conditions were pretty benign with summit winds of 10-15mph. On Saturday, starting at about the 6500’ level, there were steady winds of 30-40mph, and gusts of over 50mph. At times it was almost impossible to move forward, and several times I felt like I was blown five feet laterally. It appeared that the drivers in the few cars that were on the road were aware of my situation, and no one seemed to object that I was riding in the center of the lane. Being flung onto the jagged volcanic rock off the side of the road would not have been pleasant. On the summit I laid my bike down on its side, fearful that the violent wind would hurl my rental bike over the rail and into the crater.

After my initial stop, I didn’t stop again until the Lower Visitor Center at 7000’. I watched Michele roll in, and she looked confident.

Every time that I saw her along the way, Michele had a big smile on her face. Michele started road cycling after realizing that she loves spin classes. She does not know how to fix a flat tire, rides a “hybrid” bike, and lives in Pittsburgh where cycling conditions are terrible. Michele had never even ridden up a climb longer than a half a mile. So much for the “specificity of training” principal!

As I waited at the Upper Visitor Center, people were approaching me to ask about the ride. In return, I started asking them if they had seen a female cyclist in a pink jersey. Everybody told me that she was doing great. Nevertheless, I decided to ride down to see if the wind was too much for her.

I almost rode right by her as I barely noticed a rider who appeared to be somewhat of a full orange sail, so billowing was the wind. It was Michele, in my too large windbreaker that she had donned to ward off the cold. Still smiling, she made no effort to slow down as I did a U-turn and joined her. We rode together (as much as the wind would allow) to the top of the mountain.

What Michele accomplished is one of most incredible achievements in cycling that I have ever witnessed. As a newbie cyclist, Michele managed to complete the final 7000’ of what is widely acknowledged as one of the longest and hardest climbs in the world.

Michele is (obviously) fit, and is a highly motivated individual who likes a serious challenge. Michele must have what I call “One Hour Fitness,” the kind of fitness that spin classes or criterium racing builds and demands. Quite possibly this is why she expressed feeling a little anxiety in the beginning of the climb, but once she settled in, she found a rhythm and just kept turning the pedals over. I didn’t ask, but I imagine Michele “segmented” the climb, and once she mentally completed a segment, she moved on to the next one.

For a quick interview with Michele:

Michele ranks the climb of Haleakala as the most physically demanding thing that she has ever done, and ranks the achievement as one of the top three things that she has ever done. This is no small statement, coming as it does from the mother of two great boys, and a person who runs a very successful consulting business.

In my opinion, I would include Haleaka amonst the best climbs in the world. In the mix would be the Galibier, Bonnet, Col de la Madeleine, the Croix de Fer, the Mt. Lemmon climb in Arizona, the Tourmalet, Hautacam, and Aubisque, Alp d’Huez, several of the fantastic 2000 meter Passos in the Dolomites, and the Stelvio in the Italian Alps, which is likely the single best climb I have ever done.

Do I think Michele could have ridden up the 7.2% average grade Stelvio for 16 miles and 6000’ of climbing? No I don’t, at least not with the 30-27 triple chainring gearing she used on Haleakala. Does that make the Stelvio a harder climb than Haleakala? Not in my opinion; I just think that the two climbs are a different kind of hard.

Given a bike with an even lower gear, I’m sure that Michele could knock off the Stelvio. With the fortitude that Michele demonstrated on Haleakala, maybe she could do the Stelvio with 30/27, but she would probably require immediate knee surgery afterwards!

From Michele after the fact, “I finally have a window to catch up and really reflect on my amazing ride on Saturday.

“First of all, believe it or not, I took two Advil before my red eye flight Saturday night (after our ride) and woke up upon landing in Denver with absolutely no pain in my legs or arms...of course I kept waiting for the pain to set in and it has not...almost a week out I think I am free and clear of post climb pain.

“I cannot begin to thank you for allowing me the opportunity to challenge myself with the Haleakala climb. I am both stunned and proud of my accomplishment and thankful for your great coaching to succeed. With that said I will also challenge myself to start at sea level and train appropriately prior to the next ride.

“In addition to wanting to make the complete Haleakala climb I am now also thinking about the next challenge for myself on a bike...any ideas? How about the Tour de France:)

“Again, thank you for the amazing adventure and the opportunity to learn a lot from your experience. You are a great coach.”

Coaching? What coaching? I just pointed her up the hill, and she did the rest.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Hills of the West Coast Ride Report Easier, But Not Easy

Miles: 63.5 Climbing: 3900’ Route: Sam Smith Park—Enatai—Honda Hill climb—Newport Way to Issaquah—Issaquah-Preston trail to Sammamish Plateau—down SE 40th—W. Snoqualmie—Carnation Farms—Ames climb—Rt. 202—244th climb—216th to E. Lake Sammamish Pkwy—Mercer Island—Sam Smith Cima Coppi: 1st Chris Cloyd 2nd Tom Meloy 3rd Dan Fealk Soldier of the Day: N/A Attrition Rate: 11%

Just as with the teams in the Tour de France, we had 9 riders this morning, and luckily for our “team”, we managed to keep the rubber side down. Early in the ride I did have my concerns about this. We had a few new people on the ride who never really understood the protocol that we have used successfully. Today’s ride was definitely the “loosest” ride we have had in a long time, but the ride never felt like we were getting to the sloppy and unsafe stage.

I made several efforts to smooth things out, but we never really did get it together. Every group ride has its own unique feel and Karma, and our ride today just always felt a little disjointed. It was still a fantastic ride, but it definitely was not one of those “auto-pilot” rides.

Chris and Andrew seemed to be making random attacks on each other off the front; I never did figure out the strategy. As I watched them put their heads down and stomp on the pedals, I wondered if burning up the energy would take its toll. Chris rode extremely strong all day long, appearing to be indefatigable, but Andrew definitely paid a price as the ride wore on. More importantly, each time they sprinted, gaps would open instantly, and I wasn’t the only one who didn’t really understand what was happening.

Normally we work together and take turns on the front. We always announce a re-group on the climbs, but we endeavor to keep the ride together as a single unit on flat and rolling sections. Over the years, I have found that not only is it easier for me to keep track of everybody this way, but the ride goes faster overall. The more gaps that have to be closed, the greater the chance of totally cracking the riders who have had to close those gaps. Unless you drop these riders, the overall pace of the ride usually slows significantly.

We have a lot of rides where we just hammer away on the flats, the group just flows along, and we really must look like we know what we are doing. For this to be possible not only do you have to have good communication and cooperation amongst the group; all of the riders need to be reasonably close in strength. While all of our riders today were strong riders, it was obvious early in the ride that several were not quite strong enough to hang with a really hard pace. At this point, there are several options on the HOWC. If the group is large, we will sometimes split the group. If the group is smaller as with today, we usually (but not always) try to back off the pace and go as a single group. Today, we had a really great group of riders, and it just didn’t feel right to me to drop several of them. I did my best to keep things smooth, but it was a little bit of a challenge at times.

Today’s ride was “easier” than the HOWC’s of the recent past, but it was by no means an easy ride. While there were no real long climbs, we nevertheless still managed to tally almost 4000’ of climbing. The pace on the flats was at times quite hard, and the jerkiness on the front that I described above made it very tough on the people at the rear of the group.

We had enough strong riders for me to get a good sense of my form, and I am very pleased. Despite a big week on the bike last week, I felt great again today, and seemed to get stronger as the day went on.

Tracy and I are going to Maui in about a week and I’ll be renting a bike. Here I come, Haleakala!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Flirting With the Dark Side

On June 26th, I rode the Chelan Century with friends. The climb up McNeil Canyon proved to be a real eye opener for me. This was to be my third trip up McNeil Canyon, and it was the second hardest climb I have done in my life. Harder than the Stelvio, harder than the Galibier and the Col de la Madeleine, the Tourmalet, Alp d’Huez, and the Croix de Fer, but not harder than my August 2007 ride up to Windy Ridge at Mt. St. Helens.

I’ve ridden about a bazillion miles on bicycles, and I try to leverage that experience in my role as a Cycle U Coach. While I can’t claim to learn something new on every ride, I am still learning constantly, and trying to be a better and more efficient cyclist. As often seems to happen, sometimes people don’t follow their own advice.

I always seem to have a hard time getting drinking and eating on the bike just right. It had been last September since I had ridden over 100 miles. I find that I often do not drink and/or eat enough on long rides, and I wanted to rectify that on this day.

Just like the stock market, with eating on the bike, the pendulum always seems to swing too far. Bear market lows go lower than they realistically should, and bull market euphoria takes stock prices higher than is justifiable by any valuation measure. “It’s different this time” is always the justification on both upside and downside. On the bike, it seems I either eat too much or not enough.

I don’t ride in a lot of organized events, and unfortunately I didn’t consider the “buffet” effect. I carried my usual bars and gel, and I had enough to do the whole ride. Since you pay to be there, it’s easy to overeat at event rest stops. On that day, I think I might have gone overboard. Several times I gorged on bananas and bagels with peanut butter and jelly in the typical American fashion, always thinking that more was better.

After grazing at the early morning rest stop before McNeil, I chugged some Dr. Pepper, and then “ate” a gel while riding to the climb. I ate a Powerbar right before the start of the climb, ignoring the advice I give people of not eating too close to starting a hard climb. Normally, I can eat just about anything on a ride without incurring stomach problems, so I didn’t give it a thought.

On McNeil, I took a serious look deep into the Dark Side. I’ve never turned around on any climb, but this was to be the closest I have ever come to abandoning mid-climb. Actually, I can’t remember even considering turning around on any of the hard climbs that I have done in Europe or the mountains in the Western US. I had a pretty bad bonk on Passo Valporolo in the Italian Dolomites, but I recovered to ride two more cols well that day.

During a recon ride with Dave Douglass from Cascade in August 2007 for the initial High Pass Challenge, I had another hard-to-figure horrible performance. I was actually a little delirious on the way to Windy Ridge, and while I didn’t consider quitting, I did get off of the bike near the top. I sat down in the shade for at least 25 minutes before grinding up the rest of the way for what seemed an eternity. Tracy was sagging for us and checking out rest stop locations for the event, and I didn’t hesitate to get in the car at Windy Ridge, leaving Dave to ride all the way back to Packwood by himself.

I thought I had eaten enough that day at St. Helens, and I still don’t know what happened. As it turned out, I had some type of weird virus in September, so maybe there was a link.

Now that I think about Windy Ridge, this just confirms that McNeil on June 26th was the second hardest climb I have ever done, at least based on how close I came to quitting mid-climb. Since I didn’t even finish the High Pass Challenge route that day, I’ll have to rank the climb to Windy Ridge as the hardest. Of course, I had ridden to Windy Ridge before August of 2007, I “got gold” the next month in the inaugural High Pass Challenge, and I have ridden up there since then; it’s really not a very hard climb.

Normally I look ahead of me for motivation when I am struggling. If a rider is up ahead of me, I’ll try to concentrate on reeling him in, rather than the feeling in my body. I started up McNeil about 15 seconds behind two people who I ride with a lot. Rider 1 went a little ahead, and right as I caught up to Rider 2, he went around Rider 1. Rider 2 then started to gradually pull away, as I remained a few seconds behind Rider 1. I thought to myself, “It’s a long climb; I’ll just go at this pace, see what happens, and maybe I’ll catch Rider 2 before the top. At least I have Rider 1 to motivate me.” While I never lost sight of Rider 2, and finished about 20-30 seconds behind Rider 1, after the dark cloud descended over me, I never thought about catching them again.

Early on the McNeil climb, I talked briefly with a female rider, before dropping her and moving on. I then hit that horrible zone and I saw her coming out of nowhere and gaining on me. I am pretty sure that I have never been passed by a woman rider while I was going up a hill, but I offered no resistance when she caught and dropped me, as I was deep in the Pain Cave.

I had motored by some guy in a red jersey, and I could still see him in my little mirror as I started up the last mile of the climb that averages over 10.5% grade. He was doing a full two lanes plus 8’ shoulders weave, and I thought I was seeing a mirage when I sensed that he was almost imperceptibly gaining on me! I said to myself, “Ok, no way is this going to happen.” And it did not. This was the specific trigger that enabled me to finish the climb. Without this, I might have turned around. Thank God for that little mirror!

I felt miserable, and it was a new kind of misery. It wasn’t the “This climb is kicking my ass” type of feeling, it was just some kind of physical sensation compelling me to quit. But hey, let's keep some perspective. It's not like I was in Afghanistan with no return ticket...

Quitting mid-climb was very feasible as McNeil is an up and back climb. At one point I said to myself, "OK, let's make a choice--turn around, not finish this climb, but finish the rest of the route or grind my way up this climb, and then bail on the rest of the ride."

Despite the way I felt physically and psychologically, I only took a little over an extra minute on the climb compared to a month ago when I rode McNeil as part of the Cycle U Chelan Camp. I was kind of blown away by this.

Although I’m not sure exactly what happened on McNeil, it definitely was not a bonk. I noticed that I wasn’t sweating at all at any time on the climb, which was odd, given the slow speed and the 80+ temps. At the top, I wasn’t lightheaded, but my hands were shaking a little and I had goose bumps. I had a tiny bit of wooziness, and I didn’t feel good at all. It sounds like a little heat exhaustion, but I think it just comes down to eating too much, especially right before starting a very hard climb in hot weather. The blood in my arteries was going to my stomach, not to my legs.

I'm glad that I didn't turn around and quit on McNeil. I did recover after the climb and finished the Chelan Century, riding pretty well for the rest of the ride.

Obviously, I am not happy with how I rode McNeil, and in retrospect, I think I know why I felt so bad. Nevertheless, I believe in getting your excuses out on the 1st tee, not after you lose all of the bets on the 18th green.

I want another crack at McNeil soon. I’ll get it right, and I intend on taking at least a minute off my previous best time up the beast.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Hills of the West Coast Ride Report Six-pack on the 4th of July

Miles: 62-64 Climbing: 5900-6400’ Route: Sam Smith Park—Mercer Island—Honda Hill—Newport Way to Issaquah—Olympus climb on Squak—Issaquah-Hobart Rd.—Tiger Mountain from north climb—Tiger Mountain from south climb—May Valley—112th-Licorice climb—May Valley—Newcastle Golf club climb—Lakemont climb—down 164th—Somerset climb—Mercer Island—Sam Smith Attrition Rate: 14% Cima Coppi: 1st Chris Ragsdale 2nd Tom Meloy 3rd Pat Flanagan Soldier(s) of the Day: all of us for holding it together with Chris in the group

What a difference a week makes. A week ago at the Chelan Century I didn’t have my best day on the bike, nor did I on the last HOWC, but today I felt great for the whole (very hard) ride. I’ll be doing some self-analysis of my McNeil Canyon albatross in my next blog post…

It’s nice to know that Chris Ragsdale is indeed human. When he rolled up this morning, he was (gasp)…breathing a little hard. After he explained that he rode from home in 25 minutes instead of the normal 45, I understood. But still, we had confirmation that Chris is not a total extra-terrestrial.

We had a strong and experienced group of seven. Once again, we climbed Squak, Tiger, and Cougar Mountains twice each for a Six Pack. This seemed appropriate on the 4th, when a large (double entendre intended) part of American is likely enjoying a different kind of six pack. Paul left us somewhere around Tiger Mountain, telling someone that he was fading, which is surprising because he had been riding well. Incidentally, we had two newbies, and both of them rode solidly.

For the first part of the ride, I was impressed with how our group handled the hard pacelines dictated by Chris’s 25+mph effort on the front. Things go a lot more safely and smoothly when people know what they are doing, and we didn’t have much of the typical surging common in a hard paceline. I was also reminded of how big of a difference it makes when a rider is second vs. farther back in the group. No wonder Lance Armstrong always seems to be the 5th or sixth rider back from his teammate on the front of the group. As in the past, I am left to wonder why so many people put such a focus on how they ride an event (for example, the STP) from year to year. How can you compare your time from a year when you ride solo with a year where you have a locomotive like Chris in your group?

Later in the ride, I found myself increasingly second wheel…with no one behind me. At times, I was pulling 400-600 watts and clawing to stay on Chris’s rear wheel. I must mention a simple yet classy gesture on the part of Brian Unger. Brian was on an uncharacteristic bad day, and he was second wheel as Chris pulled us south on Issaquah-Hobart Road from Squak Mountain to Tiger Mountain. Brian told me he was going to get dropped. Most riders in this situation often seem to look down at their bike as if to imply, “Oh, I am put into difficulty by a mechanical with zee bike.” The rider behind wonders what is going on, and before you can say, “Get out of the line,” a 15’ gap opens, and the line falls apart. Brian let me know that he was moving left, I had only a 5’ gap to close, and I got onto Chris’s wheel. We were just crossing May Valley, and soon it was then just Chris and me, and it’s likely that this was the first time I stayed in the big ring up the hill to Tiger Mountain Drive.

I was not unhappy that Chris rode “piano” up Tiger Mountain from the north, enabling me to ride by his side as he told me about his tactics and those of another rider during the recent 24 Hour National Championship, which he won…again.

We dropped down Tiger back to Issaquah-Hobart, did a U-turn, and rolled back up the hill from the south. Our discussion continued, and I asked Chris what kind of riding he had planned for the four weeks leading up to his attempt on the world 24 hour and 1000km records. Chris told me that next weekend, he and two other local strong riders were going to preview his “course,” and they were going to do a four-hour century. I assumed that Chris would want to do all of the work, and that the other two riders were coming along for company. Chris replied, “No, we are going to do kind of a team time trial.” Not knowing a thing about such things as the record time for a solo 100 miles, I somewhat naively asked him if he thought he could do four hours solo. He modestly replied that he thought he probably could. Uh yeah, I thought, that’s probably a certainty with threshold power of over 400 watts.

I asked Chris if he thought he might take a break from the 24 hour stuff and go for the 100 mile record. While he feels like his strength clearly is the long stuff, he was aware that the open road record was 3:36, and he knows who holds it…

Sorry for all of this stuff about Chris Ragsdale, but he does do some pretty cool stuff on the bike, and it's kind of like playing a round of golf with a nice and humble version of Tiger Woods.

I always really like it when Chris shows up. I like to talk cycling and he can walk the talk. As I told him today, whenever he is on the ride, everyone is guaranteed a serious workout, no ifs, ands, or buts. No doubt about it—I have no choice but to ride very hard, and that’s what I am looking for on Sundays.

Holidays, especially when they fall on a Sunday, are such great days to ride. We rolled up to the light at Factoria Boulevard, just before the Honda Hill, and underneath the 405-90 interchange. Not one car was visible in any direction, a first during the million times I have come through here. No comment on the weather today, other than we snuck the ride in before the crappy stuff descended yet again. Just think how much fun we’d be having on the HOWC with perfect weather.

Whew, I am seriously tired, but it is a good tired! I spent a lot of time in the red zone for some big training effect. I’m way more tired than I was last Saturday after the Chelan Century, but that’s another story…

I hope to see you on the road.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

2010 Chelan Century Challenge

With all of the winter weather that we have had this summer, surely there must have been a little pent up demand from Seattleites for a warm and dry Chelan Century Challenge. There were 358 riders for the 2010 Chelan Century, up 30% from 2009:

Of those 358, 247 riders managed to make it to the top of the very difficult McNeil Canyon climb. An additional 167 cyclists participated in Cycle de Vine, up 80% from the inaugural ride in 2009:

Cycle de Vine is a 35 mile ride that took riders through incredible scenery and encouraged participants to visit some of the Chelan Valley's preeminent wineries. Selected wineries hosted rest stops stocked with snacks and non-alcoholic drinks. Without McNeil Canyon, I imagine that there was a little more emphasis on the social aspects of an event ride!

The Chelan Century has a new permanent Saturday slot in late June, and no longer conflicts with the Tour de Blast the held the previous week, or Flying Wheels the week before that.

All of the things that have made this event great were still in place in 2010. As usual at this time of the year, the weather was perfect: sun, low 80’s, and not much wind. It’s a bit of a drive to Chelan, but well worth it for some of the best riding in the state, including fantastic climbs, light traffic, and smooth roads. The Chelan Century is still small, very reasonably priced, and incredibly well supported. Perhaps the best thing of all is the vibe. Instead of the usual team “race the event” mentality, Chelan seems to attract riders who don’t take themselves too seriously and are just there to have a good time.

I’ll be in Chelan on June 25th in 2011 for another great Chelan Century.