Sunday, October 24, 2010

Part I The High Sierras...Hardest Climbs in the World?

Considered as a group, I believe that the climbs found on the east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California are the hardest paved climbs in the world. In my opinion, White Mountain Rd. and Horseshoe Meadows are the two most difficult climbs in the world…period. A third climb I would place in my top five hardest.

From now on, any time I am involved in a debate about the toughest climbs on Earth, I will lead with the Sierra climbs. If I am limited to comparing the Sierras with other hard climbs I have done, I’ll have to limit it to almost all of the major climbs in the Italian Alps or Dolomites, the French Alps or Maritime Alps, or the Pyrenees. Throw Haleakala on Maui into the mix, which I rode up twice in July.

I’m going to try and be objective with my comparisons, but obviously, opinion will factor heavily. I recognize that other cyclists have different criteria as for what makes a climb hard for them. In Part III of this report, I will attempt to quantify my opinions. I’ll list the hard numbers, and you can be the judge.


If you look at a map, you will find that the High Sierra Mountains run north to south, unbroken by a road for 180 miles. At the north end, Tioga Pass leading into Yosemite is your last chance for an east-west crossing. Travelling south on 395, you won’t get another opportunity to head west until Rt. 178 at Ridgecrest, which will take you to Bakersfield. Much of this country lies within protected National Parks, but this terrain protects itself; it simply is too rugged to build a road through it.

Of course, there isn’t a need for more roads; Rt. 395 is the only north-south road through the Owens Valley, the center of which is about 260 miles from both Las Vegas and Reno. This climbing Mecca is truly located in the middle of nowhere, and to me a road trip made the most sense.

No through roads means all of the climbs are out and back, and all but one head west into the Sierras. Only Bristlecone Forest-White Mountain Rd. heads east into, you guessed it, the White Mountains, capped off by 14,246’ White Mountain. Several climbs start from Bishop and Lone Pine, and others start from Independence and Big Pine.

Steep and rugged mountains make for steep and rugged roads. While not offering the purest “lines” in terms of loop trips, or the convenience of spending the whole week riding from one base, the Owens Valley climbs are memorable for so many reasons.

David Longdon and I spent six riding days in the Eastern Sierras. David’s impressions, Garmin maps of the rides, and links to some cool on the bike videos can be found here:

For David’s collection of great photographs:

My first impression of the Eastern Sierra area was that it was a lot like the Colorado Rockies, except a lot harder in terms of riding your bike. There were the same type of big sky open vistas, the Aspen were turning a golden color; but the Sierras are just so BIG, and a lot steeper.

On a typical mountain pass climb in Colorado, you start at 8000’, and then ride up 4-6% grades to 11,000’ or so. In the Eastern Sierra, you start at 4000’ in the Owens Valley, do 6000’+ of climbing on much steeper grades, and finish at over 10,000’. You often can see all the way down to the valley from the top of the climb, and the mountains still tower above you at 13,000 or 14,000’, a full 10,000’ above the valley. The vertical relief is simply amazing and makes for some incredible views.

I’ve never been a fan of desert riding, but riding in the Eastern Sierras is sensational. Bishop, our base for the first three nights, lies in the high desert of the Owens Valley, but there are real trees and a lot of green; always a plus. Climbing out of the valley, you move through the sub-alpine and finish in pure alpine terrain. This is just a very unique area.

We spent the week riding during a record heat wave in California, with temperatures hitting 113 in Downtown Los Angeles on our last day. Despite the fact that we were climbing out of a notorious hotspot northwest of Death Valley, we had cool morning riding temperatures and only mid-nineties back in town. High temperatures were well over 100 even on the coast in Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo, and Salinas.

Our last three nights were spent in Lone Pine, a somewhat well known town for two reasons: it’s the gateway to Mt. Whitney, and the nearby Alabama Hills and High Sierra have been the setting for a number of TV shows and movies, including, you guessed it, High Sierra with Humphrey Bogart. Many scenes from Gladiator and the first Iron Man movie were shot here, as well as The Lone Ranger.

Lone Pine is smaller than Bishop, and I preferred it overall. There was no Dairy Queen to be found in either town, a serious shortcoming, but both towns have pretty much everything else you need after a hard day on the bike.

The plan was to do two climbs on most days with total elevation gain of 10,000’+ per day. This formula worked well during my 2008 trip to the Dolomites, Italian Alps, Haute French Alps, and Maritime French Alps. Of 11 riding days during that trip, five of them had over 11,000’ of climbing, with two more in the 9,000-10,000’ range. The 10,000’+ per day formula would prove to not work in the Sierras.

My goals for the trip were the same as for any other alpine cycling trip: First off, ride every foot of every planned climb, and if it works out, pick up a bonus climb or two. Second, ride every climb from bottom to top non-stop; take pictures on the descents. The last goal is to never, ever do “The Weave”, wobbling across the road to lessen the grade punishing one’s legs. I’ve managed to ride the big climbs in Europe with these requirements intact. How would I manage in the High Sierra?

Coming soon:

Part II Day by Day Riding Report

Part III The Hardest Climbs on Earth; The Sierras vs. the Rest of the World

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Taking Care of Business

Last Saturday I had intended on heading out to Mountain Park Boulevard on Squak Mountain. My goal for the day was to pick off the fourth of five climbs I had targeted for PR’s in 2010. As a matter of fact, setting new PR’s on these climbs was the only specific goal I had for 2010, but for me it’s quite important:

On Saturday, I just didn’t have it in me to head out to Squak, but I did give enough to get my PR at 164th on Cougar Mountain, the other missing link climb of my five (and the shortest climb). Thinking that I had pretty much thrown in the towel for the year, and rationalizing that four for five was “pretty good,” I thought I was done with going for it on hard climbs for 2010:

But something kept gnawing at me during the week. You don’t check off on a goal with 80% of it done.

Ending 2010 without attempting a run at a PR on Mountain Park Boulevard would have been like David Longdon and me leaving the Sierras without adding a day to do Onion Valley, one of the super hard classic climbs. We would have still had a great trip, but over the winter, I know I would have been thinking about Onion Valley. Who knows if or when I’ll be back to the incredibly remote eastern Sierras?

I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit to get out there today and crank really hard on a 1000’ vertical climb. In fact, had Reg N. not been with me, I doubt whether I would have even made the trip, let alone the effort required. Both mentally and physically, I don’t think I had it all together today, but you gotta at least try!

Despite this waffling, I still had the confidence gained from going well on the other climbs, as well as the knowledge that I had never even done a “one off” on Mountain Park Boulevard. I’ve certainly made some hard runs up the climb during the HOWC, but never as hard as I could go.

I was using my heart rate band, as I am sometimes curious as to what my heart rate will be on a hard climb. I don’t use the HRM often, and once again, looking at my heart rate almost cost me dearly. As I worked my way upward, I felt like I was going pretty well. I wasn’t paying much attention to the power meter reading, instead relying on good old Rate of Perceived Exertion. I don’t have any sense of mid-climb “split times,” and while I know this climb intimately, I have no idea of what is a good time for me to any certain point…other than the top.

I didn’t feel great, but then I wouldn’t expect to when I was going so hard. I guess subconsciously I might have been looking for an excuse, because about 2/3rds of the way up I glanced down at my heart rate number. It was lower than I thought it would be, so my reaction was to think, “Hmmm…must be tired…can’t be going that fast without a high heart rate like I had on Horizon View.” Something in the back of mind told me, “Give up,” and shut it down I did, backing the effort way down. For about two minutes I dialed it back.

I caught myself thinking, “This is not the way to finish this off. You aren’t going to feel good about this if you don’t get going. Don’t quit on this climb like a (insert word of your choice); finish it like a (ditto).” And then something else hit me—I really didn’t have that much more to go. Why not use the unknown as motivation?

So I put my head down and I pedaled harder. The heart rate was up at the end of the climb, and I broke my PR by 12 seconds. Could I have gone faster? Well, I could have tried hard the whole climb, so I think so, but I think I’ll save that for 2011 when I will once again be trying to prove to myself that I am not another year older.

What’s my lesson here? First off, take the advice I give people that I coach. Listen to your body! Forget about numbers, how do you feel? How hard does the pace feel? Second, if you have an objective, focus on it and commit—if you are going to bail, bail before you start. Or as Chris Ragsdale (a man who knows something about suffering on the bike) says, “Every hill, every moment, right here, right now, re-commit, re-commit, there is nothing to save, give more right now. That's the Mantra.”

Tracy had the idea to order pizza tonight, and I kinda feel like celebrating. Over a span of 15 days, I set new PR’s on the five climbs I had targeted for 2010. Pizza did hit the spot. I’ll sleep well tonight, and I just know that I’ll have a nice content feeling when I think back to 2010 over the winter. When I get caught out in a deluge, I’ll draw upon reaching my goal for some motivation to keep on rolling.

Four for five? I don’t think that thought would put any zip into the pedals for me.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Window of Opportunity has Closed

I headed out for my ride this morning with the mantra “Kill the Hill” firmly in my mind. Something changed on my way out to Squak Mountain. It was a gradual process, a slight feeling of uneasiness, or perhaps of doubt that pervasively was creeping into my psyche.

It appears that the “window” for my PR attempts on local climbs has closed. Not physically, as I certainly am no less fit than three days ago, when on Wednesday I set a new PR on Horizon View-Summit, the most important climb of the five PR’s that I wanted to break. It is the mental window that has closed. Perhaps I was not rested enough from Wednesday, or it was simply the mid-October chill in the air. Whatever the reason, I aborted my plan to ride out to Squak Mountain to try and break my PR on Mountain Park Boulevard that I set in July of 2008.

When I reached Newport Way, I sat in the sun at Eastgate Elementary to ponder the decision, but in the back of my mind I knew that the decision had already been made. I decided to shift my focus to 164th, the other climb remaining on my 2010 “hit list.” For some reason, a shorter amount of pain seemed immensely more palatable than the full 1000’ climb of Squak.

Over eight days ending on Wednesday, I had already managed PR’s on three very hard climbs: Somerset Boulevard the hard way (from the north), Village Park Drive (Montreaux), and Horizon View-Summit. I think that is it for 2010, at least on the really steep climbs. Besides, I have to save something for next year! I’ll shift Mountain Park Boulevard to 2011, and I won’t have a go at Horizon View until 2012. That will give me two years on that one. If I am slower because I am older, at least I can rationalize that it was over two years and not one!

I rolled down Newport Way to give 164th a go, and give it a go I did. I was five seconds slower than my best time, but three seconds faster than my best time on a solo ride, and my wattage was a hair higher than either one.

My best time on 164th occurred during the HOWC that Emil led on 11/1/09. We had a fairly small group, and I entered the names of the riders into my riding journal. So I know who was there, but I don’t know for sure how 164th went down. I am highly confident that I drafted someone at least on the bottom of the climb, and pretty confident that I might have clung to the rear wheel of Jeff S. the whole way up the climb. Jeff was coming off of his 2009 Ironman, and I remember that he rode very strongly that whole ride.

The result of all of this rationalization is that I am taking credit for a PR today! Regardless of whether I benefited from a draft or not in 2009, upon examining the files, I discovered that today I rode .02 mile farther and climbed a few more vertical feet. I always time myself to a curb drain right as the main climbs ends, and I must have inadvertently picked a closer drain in 2009. There, that settles it. I am done with this PR thing for 2010. Four for five is not bad, considering I got the two that were the most important to me.

It seems logical to me that everyone would intuitively know what type of cycling they were best at, as well as what they enjoy the most. Most likely (and ideally) these focuses would overlap, but for me they do not. What I enjoy the absolute most are multi-day rides, preferably in the mountains. It’s not what I think I am best at, mostly because of what I think I am the worst at. My downfall is day to day recovery off of the bike, and if one is lousy at that, then hard tours force you into survival mode right off the bat. I recently reconfirmed this theory during a trip to the Sierras.

What I think I am the best at is also one of the other types of riding that I enjoy the most. For me, doing a group of 5-10 minute climbs as part of a hard ride is definitely a strength, I think mostly because I have had a lot of experience at it. Leading the HOWC since 2003 has been a continual learning experience, and it’s no coincidence that for a large part of the year we do 5-7 hard climbs as part of a 50-75 mile ride.

The key to enjoying a ride like the HOWC is to pace yourself, so that you are feeling as good, or almost as good (or maybe even better) on the last climb as you were on the first. I can’t quantify the effort level with a %; the climbing efforts are hard, but certainly not all out. I can quantify the effort required on my recent PR’s and it was 95%+, today included. On the HOWC, sometimes survival for me means “taking it easy” on a climb I don’t particularly enjoy, saving energy for later in the ride. On other rides, it might mean using a solid and consistent tempo, saving energy for the last few climbs when others have tired.

Conserving energy must take experience and not be totally intuitive, based on the number of riders who crack late on a HOWC. It’s human nature to have a go at it when the hammer drops and the adrenaline flows; experience is the only thing that can temper that rush.

Going really hard on a single climb is not something I enjoy. Does anyone really groove on this type of thing? Even the guys on TV look to not enjoy a mountain TT. Normally I have a window a little longer than 7-10 days to squeeze in a few of these, but in some years the window never even cracks open.

October is always a month where I just go out and ride for pure fun. I don’t think about numbers of any kind, or how hard I ride, or on some days even where I go. Rather than five PR’s on climbs as a 2011 goal, my goal next year is to have that PR window open during the main cycling season, and not in October! If I can do that, the PR’s will come, because surely the window will open wider in July or August.

We had a very cool start to a beautiful day, but I don’t think I have ever seen so many cyclists out, even during a mid-summer weekend. Many of these cyclists, myself included, were riding at a pretty spirited pace, almost like it was May and not mid-October.

When I went by the Capitol Hill Ferrari dealership on the way home, there still was not a soul in sight.

Man, I love to ride my bike.

I hope to see you on the road.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Pondering Mortality

My birthday is in a few weeks, but my present has come early this year. My present is a sense of satisfaction derived from proving to myself that I am not another year older. I am at the age where some people start to “sense their own mortality,” and I must confess that I occasionally have those feelings. Mostly I put these feelings aside; after all, we are all aging at the same rate—day by day.

Some people have very detailed short and long term athletic goals, and that is admirable, especially if it motivates them to get out on the bike more. To make use of a phrase that is part of the latest overused vernacular, I don’t have a “bucket list” of items to be checked off.

I only had one goal for this year, and it’s the same goal I have every year. It sounds pretty simple on the surface, but it’s not, and it gets harder to achieve every year. My goal is always to be faster than last year’s version of me. In other words, my goal is to not become another year older physiologically even if I do age chronologically. Realizing that this is somewhat subjective and hard to quantify, I came up with a specific strategy for 2010.

At the beginning of the year, I identified five local climbs where I would attempt to break my own personal record time. Last week I nailed down PR’s on two of these climbs (Somerset the hard way and Montreaux) on the same day that I crossed the 500,000’ of climbing threshold for 2010—the fourth year in a row I have managed to do that. The PR on Somerset felt particularly good, because my previous PR came while leading a large Team HPC group up the climb during our climbing themed ride in 2008.

Not only am I at an age where one might start to sense their mortality, I’m at an age where a cyclist is probably doing well just to hold the status quo year over year, let alone improve. For me, measuring relative aerobic strength is the most meaningful way to track my aging process.

In July of 2008, right after I returned from a very hard three week European cycling trip, I set my personal bests on a number of Seattle area climbs. I’ve been timing myself on certain climbs over the years, and I think comparing the times gives me a pretty good barometer check of my fitness. During July of 2008, I was feeling as strong as I ever had on the bike, and my times reflected that.

Well, now it’s late in 2010, I am another two years older, and I honestly didn’t think my fitness was all that great this year. That all changed when I returned from my very hard September cycling trip to the Sierras with David Longdon. Since returning, it’s almost like someone else is pushing the pedals for me. This person is pushing the pedals harder than I normally do, and using a bigger gear on familiar climbs.

I have felt great since returning from the Sierras, and doing well on two climbs last week gave me some added confidence. Today, I picked off Horizon View-Summit, the third of the five climbs, and the one that is the most important to me:

Back in July of 2008, I took a full 49 seconds off of my previous PR on Horizon View, and I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to duplicate that effort. Three down and two to go. I hope the weather and my energy both hold out a bit longer.

One of these days it would be nice to peak during a hard alpine trip instead of after I return, but it seems like the only way I can peak is to do one of those trips. I guess I’ll have to take a pre-trip before my important trip of the year! Lots of endurance and tempo work seem to benefit me tremendously, and that is the type of riding I do on a tour with a lot of climbing.

Back in January, Tracy and I moved into the retail core of Downtown Seattle, about two blocks from Nordstrom. We’ve lived downtown for over 9 years, and I have always headed out to the eastside via the International District. Since the move, I still head to the tunnel through the ID, but I now come home over Capitol Hill. I suppose I could count, but I imagine that I have ridden by the Ferrari Dealership at Madison and 12th on Capitol Hill at least 100 times in 2010.

I have yet to see a single person standing in the showroom as I cruise by; no salespeople, and definitely no customers. For those who seek to temper their feelings of mortality by buying a Ferrari, it appears that the current economy has put a damper on that strategy. Who am I to judge? But for me, it’s far more satisfying to crush those mortality feelings while on the bike.