Sunday, July 24, 2011

Hills of the West Coast: Congrats to Cadel Evans

Miles: 69.6 Climbing: 2574’ Route: Tibbets/East Lake Sammamish/Avondale/Bear Creek/Mink/Broadway/Maltby/High Bridge/Carnation/Fall City/Tibbets Attrition Rate: 2

Back when we used to start the ride from Downtown Seattle, I would often ride up the first climb at the back of the group. My goal was to get a feel for the type of group that we had on the ride that day. If someone looked to be in over their head, I would find a way to have “The Talk” privately. Normally the rider would have already figured out that they were not likely going to be able to hang with the ride. If not, I would tell them that the ride was likely to get harder, and certainly not easier. I’d make sure that they knew the way home, and it made sense to have this talk while we were still close to the start.

When we head north from the new ride start in Issaquah we often head up East Lake Sammamish, riding a paceline in the generous shoulder. There is a very small hill towards the south end, and for the second time in the last few weeks, a rider popped off of the back. We did hit the hill a little hard, and I asked the group to take it easy down the back side of the hill. I thought for sure that whoever was off the back would easily catch back on. I was wrong, and that person never regained the group. It was very early on in the ride and I was checking everything out, making sure that we had a safe and solid group of nine. I couldn’t afford to be distracted by looking behind us.

I’m not sure what the solution might be. With no re-group at the top of a tiny hill, if I hang around with someone off of the back, I’ll have to dig deep to regain the paceline, something I really don’t want to have to do. Besides, that won’t help the popped rider anyway.

As we have a lot this year, we headed out into the hinterland, and everyone was very complimentary of the route. We had an on the road average of around 20mph, and once everyone got the feel of things, we had a pretty smooth paceline most of the time. When riding this type of route, we certainly don’t get the same training effect as we would if we were doing 6000’ of hard paced climbing by staying local in the Issaquah Alps or hammering in super hard pacelines like we often did in past years. But hey, it’s finally summer (maybe), and it just seems like a lot more fun to ride out in the MON (middle of nowhere). Spring is normally the time of the year for heavy duty climbing, but since we didn’t really have a spring this year, we have sort of skipped that phase.

I have been listing the ride as having “some hills,” and the pace as “HOWC Lite,” so riders should know what to expect. If people come out expecting the maniacal pace of past summers or the big climbing days, they must be adjusting well. Now I just have to figure out how to have the ride go smooth right from the start, and to not lose anyone right out of the gate.

At least no one is complaining!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Hills of the West Coast Six-Pack Gone Flat

Miles: 29 Climbing: 2800’ Route: Tibbets—Issaquah-Hobart—132nd Tiger climb—Tiger from north climb—Tiger from south climb—May Valley—High Valley on Squak climb—May Valley—Rt. 900 (raining-abort)—Tibbets Participants: 12 Attrition Rate: 4 (two didn’t leave the parking lot: one didn’t want to ride hills today, and one drove in as we were leaving-two with mechanicals)

One of our riders today has lived in Seattle for his entire life of 54 years. He said that he has never experienced a summer like this weather-wise…but then you already knew that. The plan today was to stay close to our Tibbets start and do climbs on Tiger, Squak, and Cougar Mountains before the rain. Ideally, we would pick up a “six-pack” of two each on each mountain.

Well, at least we exceeded our quota on Tiger. Not by plan, as the intent was to loop to the south before heading back to Squak. Thanks to Dan and his handy phone with a radar map, we changed our minds and rode back over Tiger from whence we had just come. As it turned out this was a good call weather-wise. I wasn’t the only one who didn’t want to ride in the rain on their “A” bike…in mid-July. Besides it simply being the wrong time of the year to get messy, the roads were as slippery as glass on the descents.

It started to rain on the High Valley climb. After descending, the group took a shortcut over Route 900 back to Tibbets. I have only ridden 900 in the other direction one time eight years ago. My, how time flies. Heading north on 900 is a much better plan, and it wasn’t bad at all, at least on a Sunday morning.

One of our riders had a heart rate monitor with a high heart rate alarm. The noise the device emitted was that fast, “beep, beep, beep” that you hear in a movie right before the bank vault door blows off in an explosion. It was the loudest little HRM alarm I have ever heard, and I was hoping that his heart wasn’t going to explode. He looked like he was riding hard enough for that to happen! I’ve written before about how little relevant information a heart rate monitor conveys. Why can’t they invent a device with a rain alarm?

There isn’t much to write about today, because there wasn’t much to today’s ride. While our ride was short, it was sweet as well, and I just hope that we have good luck with the weather for the rest of the summer.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Hills of the West Coast: Fun or Focus?

Miles 74.3 Climbing: 2662’ Route: East Lake Sammamish/Avondale/Bear Creek/Mink/Maltby/Snohomish/Monroe/Tualco/West Snoqualmie Valley/Ames Lake/244th/212th/East Lake Sammamish Participants: 8 Attrition Rate: 1 Soldier of the Day N/A Cima Coppi N/A

Now that we have done enough Issaquah based HOWC rides, I kind of have a sense as to how things are shaping up.

Almost every week I am left to ponder how I am riding relative to the group. Over the years that we started the ride from downtown I was occasionally in the little front group, often in the top “quartile” in terms of relative strength to the other riders, in the top third most of the time, and almost never lower than mid-pack.

Since we have started in Issaquah I am often mid-pack at the start of the ride, but if we lose a few of the riders who are struggling a bit, my “ranking” drops dramatically. No, I have not been DFL…yet, but I have been a little baffled as to why I don’t seem to be riding as strongly as in the past.

Certainly I am not as quite as fit and sharp as I would like to be in mid-July, but I’m not in bad shape, and there isn’t anything physically that is holding me back. Yes, I am another year older, but let’s not go there.

I can only come to one conclusion and that is that we are getting stronger groups starting in Issaquah than the already strong Seattle groups we had. Every week a new rider or two shows up, and inevitably they are very, very strong riders. It simply isn’t easy to ride mid-pack or above with these guys. We had a light crew of seven (starting with eight) today on STP weekend, but there was nary a slacker amongst them.

We did the short but steep 244th climb up to the Sammamish Plateau at about mile 64 of a hard 74 mile ride. I went hard, and despite taking two seconds off of my previous best on this climb, I was still eight seconds or so behind the lead group. The HOWC gang always hammers this climb, so it’s not a bad benchmark.

One would think that this performance gap would provide ample motivation to not only dig deeper on the ride, but to get out and ride (I prefer this word to “train”) with some serious intensity one weekday in addition to doing the HOWC on the weekend. Regardless of any other goal, every year I focus on the goal of riding well on the HOWC, and that normally provides ample motivation to put in the quality (and quantity) miles to prepare to do so. For some reason the focus with my riding is not there this year, but the fun is. As always, I am really enjoying riding my bicycle(s). I speculate that I must be distracted somehow and I just don’t have the tunnel vision required to get the job done.

I feel much less competitive in spirit on the ride this year than I normally do. Perhaps I’m not excited about hammering hard and competing because I sense I am not as competitive with the group I am riding with? Paradoxically, maybe I am not enjoying riding hard because I am not quite fit enough?

So far this year, we’ve done a lot less climbing specific routes than typical. With the Issaquah start, I can take the ride far out into the hinterlands (Snohomish, Black Diamond-Enumclaw, North Bend-Rattlesnake Lake) within the context of a 60-75 mile ride. Starting from Downtown Seattle we would often do a “Six Pack” of two climbs each on Tiger, Squak, and Cougar Mountains, totaling 60+ miles and 6000+’ of climbing. Since we now start at the epicenter of those climbs, the same route results in only 40-45 miles, and it seems contrived to tack on supplemental miles to hit the 60-70 mile range. Especially given my state of mind, it’s been much more fun to take the ride out on a big loop, introducing people to roads that they have never seen. No doubt we sacrifice some training effect by not doing the hard Issaquah Alps climbs, but so far everyone seems to love these new routes.

Today we averaged 21mph for the full ride, riding most of the time in a paceline around 23-24mph. There is no question we could have just kept riding and easily finished off 100 miles in less than 5 hours. Rolling along in these pacelines felt almost “easy” when I wasn’t on the front, and there were enough of us that no one had to take long pulls unless they wanted to. I never saw a wheel out of line, and the pacelines felt about as comfortable as a paceline can. I normally don’t enjoy pacelines much, and while I certainly can’t fathom what it’s like to ride in a peloton for 2100 miles like the Tour riders do, I must admit that I am having fun participating in the solid pacelines we have had. Taking the pace up to 25-26+ like we normally do in the summer would certainly change the sense of relative calm for all of the riders, and at this point, I just don’t think the increased risk of increased speed is worth it.

I don’t have any specific cycling goals for this year, other than my normal annual goal of defying the odds and proving (to myself) that I have not aged a year aerobic capacity-wise, even if I have chronologically. I do this by selecting five local climbs that I frequently time myself on and striving to establish new PR’s on each one. At this point, failing to achieve this would actually not disappoint me, but “taking a year off” is not the smartest thing I could do. In addition to not having any specific cycling goals, I have a shiny new 2012 Specialized Epic Expert Carbon 29er waiting to be assembled at Cycle U. Since living in Issaquah, I have really enjoyed learning how to ride mountain bikes now that I can roll out my garage to great singletrack. Maybe I am distracted:)

Coaching somebody like me would be difficult right now. You say that you have no real goals? What’s that, you aren’t psyched to ride really hard? Just why are you riding? You say you want to ride just for fun this year, and what should I do, coach?

I’d say take two fun pills and call me when they wear off.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Hills of the West Coast Report: It's Tour Time!

Route: Tibbets Park/East Lake Sammamish/SE 24th climb/212th/Louis Thompson climb/Inglewood/Sahalee climb/Inglewood/208th climb/Union Hill/Snoqualmie Valley/Fall City/SE 40th climb/Highland climb Miles: 62.6 Climbing: 3943’ Participants: 11 Attrition Rate: 2 plus Ian’s mechanical and 1 early departure *Special Clydesdale Cima Coppi: Kevin M

Today was the first day of the Tour de France. For the last year, many of the riders have thought of not much else than these next three weeks. It must really suck to be anyone other than the strongest rider in the Tour. It must even kind of suck to be that guy.

I could train for the next year with nothing else in mind other than becoming a strong enough climber to hold Ian L’s wheel on a single climb. I could invest in an oxygen tent, hire a team of the best coach’s in the world, and count every gram of food that goes into my body. I could fill his top tube with sand and it’s still not possible that I could stay with him. This is simply an unachievable goal. On top of that, a year from now, I’ll be another year older and Ian will be another year stronger, because he is still in that age range.

While Ian is light years stronger than me, that’s certainly not the case at the top level of professional cyclists participating in the Tour. All it takes to make a difference at that level is one or two percent, ignoring the potential advantages of blood doping, etc. As I watch Ian ride away on a climb, there is no sense of loss or remorse on my part, no sense of frustration, and no sense of anger. It’s not just that I’m really not that competitive on a friendly ride; I fully grasp that it is not possible for me to stay with Ian.

Now put yourself in the shoes of the General Classification contending Tour riders on the first climb of any significance. These guys are going to be looking at each other and listening to the breathing around them, searching for any sign of fear or weakness. Yes, fear, because these riders have been training for the last year not knowing if they can go with this guy or that guy. Somewhere in the bunch will be someone breathing through their mouth and looking as cool as a cucumber. Phil and Paul may not talk about it, and even if the group stays together on that first climb, many of those riders will already realize that they are not capable of winning the Tour, barring unforeseen developments. There will be the strongest rider, and then there will be everybody else, and the strongest rider always wins the Tour. You would have to be delusional to believe otherwise.

The camera will zoom in on the rider’s faces, and they will do their best not to show any emotion. One or more of them will likely secretly wish that he could pull over and cry in frustration. After all, he has just spent the last year focusing on something that he learns in a split second is impossible. And even if the strongest rider believes he is the strongest rider, he will still have a knot in his stomach and moments of doubt. It’s far from ironclad that he will win; after all, he’s not light years stronger than his competitors. What pressure on these riders!

In tournament golf, if a player is six shots behind with six holes to play, he still has a chance. He could finish strongly, and the leader could “choke” and lose the tournament. That’s not the way it works in endurance sports. Yes, there are variables. Some riders recover faster than others, some can climb great but not time trial, but the bottom line is that anyone other than the strongest rider normally will not win the Tour.

Yes, those pros are sure incredible, and as I discussed in my last blog about this year’s Chelan Century, the rate at which these people climb is astounding. But you don’t have to climb at 6000’ per hour to be astounding. At 40 years of age and weighing in at 220#, Kevin M is the strongest “Clydesdale” climber I have ever seen. When I think of the term Clydesdale, I think of someone who, while they may be capable of pulling like a locomotive on the flats, rides most climbs like they are towing a piano on a trailer. Not Kevin, who must possess one hell of an engine under the hood. I couldn’t keep up with him even on the steepest climbs where the weight penalty is the greatest. I’m a little embarrassed to think about how much less I weight than Kevin. Not often do I witness a battle against gravity as impressive as I saw today.

Back on Planet Earth, the seven remaining members of our group settled down into a nice rhythm. Heading south through the Snoqualmie Valley, we had our own little Team Time Trial, albeit at quite a bit below a full out effort level. We took 5-10 second pulls, similar to the pure rotating pacelines you will see tomorrow on TV. Can you imagine riding in a rotating paceline with everyone absolutely on the rivet? No wonder there is often carnage during those events. I can hardly wait for tomorrow’s Tour stage-just kidding! It’s not like I’ll be watching the Indy 500. Actually, I’ll be looking for any signs of weakness when the camera zooms in on the riders. For me, that might be the most interesting part of the tour, because I think the suspense will be over long before the riders roll into Paris.