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.