Saturday, January 29, 2011

Eastern Horizons

OK, so Issaquah is indeed a pretty good base for some superb bicycle riding.

We are only a month into our one year experiment of living in Olde Town Issaquah so the jury is still out, but overall so far we love it. One thing is for sure and that is that cycling loops starting in Issaquah are fabulous! On Wednesday I was talking to Reg N. about the great rural loops I can do, and I mentioned that heading east was the weakest direction from home. Riding up the I-90 shoulder is the quickest way east to North Bend and that’s not my cup of tea.

But who is in a hurry on a bike anyway? Why would I want to go the fastest way when other routes are so incredible? Well, because I was simply unaware. I thought I had ridden just about anywhere I would care to ride in the entire Metro/King County area. That was before I rode to Snoqualmie, North Bend, and Rattlesnake Lake on Thursday.

I have ridden to Fall City a million times, but living in Downtown Seattle for the last 9+ years meant that this is the farthest due east I would venture. Normally from Fall City I would head north and loop though the Snoqualmie Valley. Living in Issaquah, I am now just a hair under 10 miles from Fall City, so it was time to explore some new cycling terrain (for me).

Up Grand Ridge and over the south end Sammamish Plateau took me to the Issaquah Fall City Road. For those familiar with the Flying Wheels route, this is the last climb as you leave the valley at about the 90 mile mark. (It’s the climb with the false summit that some riders curse at.) The cruise down to Fall City is a delight, and the return trip is actually a great climb almost totally devoid of traffic.

After leaving Fall City on Thursday, I was on Rt. 202 for about a mile before I took a right onto SE Fish Hatchery Road. This road climbs and dips along the Snoqualmie River; the only traffic consists of a few fishermen. Views of the valley and river below abound, and then this road re-connects with 202. Route 202 through these parts has light to moderate traffic and a good shoulder in most spots with a few short stretches of just OK shoulder. After leaving the Hatchery Road, there is a nice climb up to the Salish Lodge.

Just past the lodge I tuned left and discovered a real gem. Tokul Road is hilly and has some stunning views of Mt. Si. I think many Seattleites tend to take Mt. Si for granted, but I think it is a very beautiful mountain, rising as it does some 4000’ out of the flat valley with no foothills. Tokul ties into 396th and then SE Reinig Road. The Si and river views continue, but this time the river is the North Fork of the Snoqualmie. I should point out that there were literally zero cars on these roads. Reinig turns into 428th, which I took south into “downtown” North Bend. I have always loved this little town; I guess the people responsible for Twin Peaks did their homework well.

To cap things off, from North Bend I climbed up 436th to Rattlesnake Lake. Total gain for the climb is about 600’, and other than a few short steep sections it is actually a pretty easy climb. I could see people 1100’ above me on the Rattlesnake Ledge, a precipice that almost seems to hang out over the lake. They were too far away to tell if they were enjoying themselves as much as I was. Again, with only hikers travelling to the dead end at the restricted Cedar Watershed area, I found myself on an almost deserted road. The “Rain Bongos” at the Education Center were a nice bonus, and kind of reminded me of being in the Olympics!

On the way home I took a slightly different route through North Bend. Still nice, but not as sweet as the ride out. Round trip from Issaquah up to Rattlesnake was 57 miles. Most of the roads are quiet and slightly busier roads all seem to have decent or better shoulders. No wonder I saw a few other roadies, as well as some commuters and some folks who just looked to be out on a short fun ride. The scenery is often stunning. This area is just a great place to ride.

I’ll be taking the HOWC up to Rattlesnake on quiet Sunday mornings.

Tracy and I are living in Issaquah as kind of a test to see how we like small town living. While Issaquah is hardly an isolated little town, living in the town center of Olde Town is giving us a little bit of flavor for the lifestyle. In my opinion, one would be hard pressed to find more attractive small towns than Fall City, Snoqualmie, and North Bend. Any one of these towns would be a great outdoors base. Close by there is great hiking and trail running, road and mountain bike cycling, flat water and river kayaking, fly fishing, and even some pretty nice golf courses. If you are feeling lazy, you could always just go to Snoqualmie Falls. It’s no wonder that the Salish Lodge can charge a hefty rack rate for a stay.

It does rain and snow a little more in this area, and you occasionally have some serious down-slope winds from the Cascades, but all in all I could envision a very relaxed life in Fall City, Snoqualmie, or North Bend. Living in Issaquah we are only 30 minutes from the snow sports and hiking near Snoqualmie Pass, and any of these other spots just put you closer to the action. After spending the last nine years living in Downtown Seattle, for us the glamour of the city lights seem to be fading…fast.

Riding around 10,000 miles a year, I don’t expect to find too many pleasant cycling surprises left for me in the metro area. Yesterday’s ride was more than that. I think it just might turn out to be one of my very favorite rides. And to think I thought heading east was the “weak direction” from Issaquah.

I’ve never been big on throwing my bike in a car and driving to go ride. Now that I live in Issaquah there is even less reason to do so. I still have some ground to cover in Snohomish County, and I have a lot better access to that now as well.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Coach's Tip: Mental Milestones

I wanted to write a piece on mental preparation and toughness, so I went to the toughest guy on the bike that I know. His name is Chris Ragsdale, and he holds the United States 24 hour endurance cycling record and won the Furnace Creek 508 endurance race in 2009:

Check out this video to see how Chris looked after the almost 32 hours of riding it took to set the World 1000 kilometer record last August 1st:

Chris looks happy, but I think he might have been too tired to smile!

This evening (01/22/2011) at 7 PM Chris Ragsdale is meeting a small group for a little night ride…of 150 miles. Yes indeed, I do think most of us could learn something from Chris. Perhaps not in terms of scientific training theory, as Chris doesn’t use any device (not even a basic bike computer) when he trains. This is a guy who listens to his body, and ignores pretty much all other stimuli.

Chris has absolutely convinced himself that every single thing he does makes him stronger. The day before we talked he had completed some physiological testing at Dr. Emily Cooper’s Seattle practice. Chris of course went at the testing 100%, and he told me that on that following evening he was going to be a couch potato. Chris declared, “I’m going to sit on the couch tonight and eat pizza. I know that this will make me stronger.”

When preparing for a big race, Chris uses a series of what he calls “Mental Milestones.” Mental Milestones are a series of increasingly more difficult tests on the bike. These tests are designed to provide Chris with positive feedback. According to Chris, “These milestones need to be difficult but achievable. There must be success at all cost and I have to feel really good about it.” And here is maybe the key, “I only use what serves me psychologically.”

Chris wants his Mental Milestones to be very physically challenging, yet he feels like he must be 100% successful in completing these tests. So it seems like Chris must walk a fine line. He has to really do something that is going to be punishing, but at the same time he knows he absolutely must finish the trial. To quote Chris, “I have to do these. I must be successful.”

Several of the early milestones may simply involve comparing himself to a strong cyclist he often rides with, but as time goes on the milestones become more specific.

Weeks 3-12 preceding a goal event are critical in terms of fitness conditioning. This period of time is often called the “Specialization Period.” Chris likes to complete his last and most difficult Mental Milestone three weeks before his big race. At this point in the game, failure is not an option. I asked Chris if he had ever failed the last test, and he simply said, “No,” and changed the subject. It’s easy to see just how confident Chris must be going into his races after sequentially polishing off his tests. It would kind of be like if Tiger Woods had won The Masters, as well as the U.S and British Opens before teeing it up in the PGA. I’d like his chances in the PGA.

Chris likes his last hurdle to be 50% of race distance at race pace. So if he is preparing for a 24 hour race where he expects to ride over 500 miles, then he’s gonna do 250 solo miles in less than 12 hours. Yes, solo, as in no drafting. And yes, 12 hours including any stops. I didn’t ask, but I’m betting that many of these little jaunts on the bike start in the evening and finish in the morning.

If your goal is to ride a century event by yourself in 10 hours, then maybe doing fifty miles in five hours is something you need to get done as your own last milestone. Two or three weeks before the event is almost too late to add any significant additional fitness, but it is a perfect time to pack in the mental toughness and confidence required. Before you get to the final test, perhaps you could have as a goal to beat your own personal record up a climb you regularly do. Or maybe beat someone who normally beats you up that climb! Don’t forget that a good training plan is obviously going to be necessary to give you the fitness to achieve a goal. If Chris is any indication, focusing on specific mental prep is just as important.

Champions are made of the kind of stuff that Chris so obviously possesses. I would imagine that many elite athletes at the top of his or her sport have a similar psychological strategy. What works for Chris must work for others, because Chris is definitely a champion. I wonder which piece of what puzzle tonight’s ride is designed to fit?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Coach's Tip on Indoor Grinding...I mean Training

This is the time of the year when many riders move indoors. There are many reasons that riding the trainer when the weather is nasty makes sense, not the least of which is safety. While some claim to actually like indoor riding, most people seem to just grin and bear it. Having not ridden indoors for three years until the other day, I can’t claim to be an expert, but I do have a tip that might help you pedal through the drudgery.

There are always a lot of articles published on how to minimize the boredom of riding indoors by using very structured intervals. “Survive” is the title word in the first article I spotted today:

Words such as “descending ladders, pyramids, over and under, muscle tension, and surges” are common in indoor workout descriptions. Expectations are that you monitor what gear you are in as well as what zone, your cadence, power, heart rate, and even whether you are in or out of the saddle. Yes, you also have to watch the clock and count intervals as well as sets. No doubt that while this approach is highly motivating for some riders, for other riders it may drive them right off the bike for the entire winter.

Listening to music helps and watching DVD’s of riders in the Tour de France is supposed to be motivating. Rather than stare at a bunch of guys I don’t know go fast on TV, I prefer to visualize myself going fast. And oh yeah, I find structured intervals on a trainer about as appealing as walking on a bed of hot coals. All of this stuff is too much work for me!

When I must “ride” indoors, I visualize being on one of my favorite routes on an 80 degree summer day. For pace and timing, I use the chronometer in my head, and only occasionally glance at real elapsed time. This makes it seem more real, and I can feel the wind and hear the birds chirping; well OK, almost. If I want to ride the trainer for an hour, I can still use a route that takes me two hours outdoors; I simply condense the non-essential sections. Give it a try the next time you saddle up.

If you are in the base training cycle, pick a route with shallow climbs, and picture yourself out for a ride by yourself. If it’s time to do some threshold or Vo2 max work, visualize a route with steep climbs. And oh yeah, don’t forget to visualize shedding riders off of your wheel as you climb higher!

My friend Justin shared a great visualization trick he uses when doing solo outdoor climbing repeats: Imagine riding the first 1/3 of the climb in a group of ten or so riders. During the second third, see those riders drop off of your wheel one by one as you steadily apply pressure. On the last third, you are now riding strongly by yourself, and during the final minute you dig deep to put as much time into the other riders as you can! This image might just distract you enough indoors that you will almost enjoy the “climb.”

A possible alternative to indoor riding is to find a great outdoors “indoor” track. Pick terrain close to your home where the roads are good and traffic is light at the times you might ride. When I lived in Downtown Seattle, Magnolia/Discovery Park was my go to area. As I now live in Issaquah, I can see the steep 1000’ Squak Mountain climbs from my window, and come spring I’ll be riding there quite a bit, rain or shine. If I am looking for something a little less challenging in the winter, I can head in the opposite direction up Grand Ridge. I can do a 3.75 mile climb that starts almost right outside my front door.

The climb to Grand Ridge couldn’t be better in terms of safety, as the first part is on the paved Issaquah Creek Trail, and the remainder on the bike lane equipped very low traffic (at least at non-rush hour times) Park Dr. in the Issaquah Highlands. I finish off with a loop around the Harrison circle to the top of the west end of Grand Ridge. For variety, from Harrison I can ride out Grand Ridge Drive amongst the mega-sized homes that have popped up in the trees. I descend the top section via a different way than I go up.

Riding up to Grand Ridge and down for an hour or two is great. I am never far from home, and I can quickly bail if I get cold. I can repeat the climb as many times as I like without it feeling like “repeats” for some reason, and I don’t have to deal with cars on narrow roads. I can do this climb in bad weather and not feel like I am risking my neck just to get in an outdoor ride, and there is an incredible view of Bellevue and Seattle from the top (the Olympics are there as well on a clear day).
If I rode at night I’d still feel comfortable, but the view would be of city lights. The average grade is 5.7%, but the final .5 mile goes at 9.5%. You still get a nice view if you skip this last section, but it’s not as dramatic, so that is a motivator to finish the climb off.

A long climb that is not too steep is perfect for those longer “Sweet Spot” intervals that are nice to do at this time of the year, but are so hard to do indoors.

It’s raining lightly and 48 degrees outside as I write this, and I am out the door to head up to Grand Ridge.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Mountain Mice

I started writing this report back in October. This post is long on personal stuff and short on cycling. Just an FYI.

There is an Aesop’s Fable titled “The City Mouse and the Country Mouse.” The gist of the story is that City Mouse goes to the country and Country Mouse goes to the city. After a short time, they both miss home. It’s kind of a “the grass is always greener” story.

I have been a City Mouse for most of my adult life, and Tracy and I have really enjoyed living in Downtown Seattle for the last nine years. We are about to find out if we enjoy living as Country Mice; well, maybe more appropriately as Mountain Mice.

There are so many different lifestyle choices in the Seattle area. One can live in a vibrant downtown, beautiful suburb, on the water or literally on the water in a houseboat. We have so many unique neighborhoods like Ballard and Fremont. It’s possible to live on any number of hills with incredible views. It’s also possible to live near Seattle in a setting with a very much small town feel, surrounded by mountains and creeks, and be 15 miles from one of the great downtowns in the country.

The impetus for a potential whole new way of thinking occurred when David Longdon and I stopped for gas and lunch in Eugene, Oregon on the way home from our September cycling trip to the Sierra Mountains:

As we dropped into town from Willamette Pass, I was blown away by Eugene’s setting in a lush green valley surrounded by hills. David was kind enough to give me a quick tour. Two weeks later, Tracy and I spent four days in Eugene checking out the hypothetical small town lifestyle we have talked about in the past. Yes, we have visited many other small cities and towns, but this time we were on an exploratory mission.

Shorty after our return to Seattle, I was riding my bike through Issaquah as I do frequently. While I was descending Squak Mountain and dropping into little Downtown Issaquah a light bulb went off. My first thought was, “This is like Eugene without the 9.9% state income tax!” Issaquah actually has some other major advantages over Eugene. Not only will we be close to a major city and airport, but should we decide to “live up on the hill” in Issaquah, we could buy a home between .5 and 2.0 miles (and up to 1000’ above) from the town center. The equivalent scenario in Eugene is to live up on Fox Hollow Drive, a minimum 4+ miles from downtown.

We thought about moving to Issaquah two years ago but the timing didn’t feel right. Following our trip to Eugene, the seed that had been slow to germinate back then bloomed rapidly. After quite a few trips out to Issaquah, we decided to live in the area of Issaquah known as Olde Town, about four blocks from the center of downtown. Olde Town is a little over a mile south of Gilman and I-90, the commercial area that reeks of suburbia (but does provide a lot of conveniences). The atmosphere of Old Towne is almost diametrically opposed to the Gilman Village area.

We’ve rented a really nice townhouse for a year, and we’ll live the lifestyle and evaluate things. Our townhouse is one of four on a quiet street where all of the other dwellings are single family homes. If Issaquah is indeed a place where we might want to live for a long time, I imagine we’ll consider buying a house either in town or on the hill.

Front Street in Downtown Issaquah is a little bit of a throwback, what with barber shops with poles, all locally owned restaurants , and proprietorships such as the butcher shop, Sunset Tavern, Jak’s, the Village Theatre, and the Issaquah Brewpub. There are two bike shops right in town a few blocks from each other, one of them a Campagnolo Pro Shop. That’s a good sign, isn’t it? :)

In Issaquah we will be living at the epicenter of my “sweet spot” 40-80 mile ride zone. For seven years I have led the Hills of the West Coast group ride from Downtown Seattle, and I’ll be relocating the ride start to Tibbet’s Park at the foot of Squak Mountain. From there I’ll be able to take the ride all the way south to Enumclaw, east to North Bend, and north to Snohomish, Monroe, and even Sultan. For focused climbing, it’s hard to beat Tiger, Cougar, and Squak Mountains.

I love riding in all types of environments, and I very much enjoy riding my bike in dense urban areas like Downtown Seattle and Capitol Hill. I’ll miss that, but I will be living smack in the middle of all of my favorite rural riding, and Tracy will like the riding more. She likely will even get one of those funny bikes with a basket on the front. We’ll use our bikes to run errands around Issaquah, giving our weekends kind of a Euro village feel.

While we have loved living in a large city’s downtown environment, we have missed the sounds of the rain on the roof and the wind in the trees. We miss the trees period! We miss the green of the Pacific Northwest. From our new place, we can walk to four different trailheads on Tiger and Squak Mountains. Sweet! In fact, last Saturday Tracy and I went on a hike. We walked out our front door and were at a Tiger Mountain trailhead in about 3 minutes.

Besides trailheads, Tracy and I will walk to the grocery store, to the movies and restaurants, and to REI, just like we did in Downtown Seattle. We can walk or ride on paved bike paths to get to any of the above, as well as to Trader Joes, the PCC, Lake Sammamish Park, or even Costco. Of course, there is always the 554 Express that stops four blocks from our new home should we want to make a non-parking and hassle free trip to Downtown Seattle.

Tracy and I have often discussed what it would be like to live in a small town. I think living in Issaquah will give us a good sense as to what that might feel like. If it’s not for us we can always bail out and head back to Seattle as re-born City Mice!

We moved in on 12-29-10, right at the start of the year-end cold snap. I went for a walk through town on our second night, after Issaquah received about .5” of snow—just enough to make everything glisten in the cold. This is a little stretch, but with the silhouettes of Squak and Tiger 2000’ and 3000’, respectfully, above my head I felt like I could be walking around in Steamboat Springs. That’s about how big Issaquah feels when you are strolling around downtown.

Maybe the analogy is indeed appropriate, because the way I see it Issaquah is kind of like a ski town without the skiing. Most ski towns have small town centers surrounded by mountains (obviously). Typically there is good road cycling, mountain biking, and hiking. Issaquah doesn’t have kayaking right in town but it does have pretty creeks where the salmon come back annually to spawn. Just up the road is good whitewater for kayaking. Thirty minutes from Issaquah up at the pass you’ll find great hiking along with snowshoeing and both alpine and cross country skiing.

Our gut feel is that we are really, really going to like this place. I have never lived anywhere that is as quiet as our new neighborhood. So quiet that at night it reminds me of the quiet of a solo backpacking trip deep in the wilderness. Windless nights in a tent can get creepy when all you can hear is yourself thinking. Far from creepy, our new found quiet is helping me to sleep more soundly than ever before.

We never really noticed the city noise. We lived on the 32nd floor and had AC, so we were largely insulated from the city sounds. While we had panoramic views of the Sound and Olympics, we were also insulated from our surroundings. It was starting to feel like we lived in a glass castle in the sky. Rather than have a great view of the mountains, we are now living in the mountains. (Funny how the sirens started to bug us after we made the decision to move…)

For those who know me and have my phone number, don’t hesitate to call if you are on an epic ride and passing through Issaquah on your bike. Maybe I’ll leave some milk and cookies out for you.