Sunday, August 28, 2011

Hills of the West Coast Catch-22

Miles: 68.4 Climbing: 2579’ Route: Tibbets park—Avondale—Bear Creek—Maltby—Broadway—High Bridge—Snoqualmie Valley—Fall City—Tibbets Participants: 7
Attrition Rate: 1

Today’s ride was very mellow, perhaps too mellow. Perhaps…boring. We had a small and safe group and we rode another great route with minimal traffic. The terrain was rolling and so we spent a lot of time in pacelines. So what is my issue? For some reason, I’m just not as excited about leading the Hills of the West Coast this year.

Certainly, it’s been a big change starting the ride from Issaquah this year after rolling from Downtown Seattle for the previous seven years. Some of the downtown regulars still make the ride, and many of the new people have been extremely strong riders. It’s not that the different people have changed the ride, and the route possibilities starting from Issaquah are much more diverse and interesting than the old downtown routes. We’ve even had pretty decent luck with the weather. Come to think of it, it has absolutely nothing to do with moving the ride. I was starting to enjoy the ride less when we started from downtown.

Perhaps it’s not the HOWC at all, but just the nature of modern day group rides. Check out this article from the Carolina Cycling News titled “Lost art of the group ride”:

The author does an excellent job of describing the drawbacks to many group rides. While I strive to be different and do things more the “way things used to be,” I’m starting to think that this striving is burning me out. The great thing about a hard group ride with fit riders is that you have no choice but to become a stronger rider as a result. On the flip side, while riding solo or in a small group doesn’t replicate the competitive intensity of a hard group ride, you also don’t have to deal with the downside of the dynamics of a group. I wish that this article could somehow be required reading for any new rider wishing to join group ride.

Regarding my feelings about leading the HOWC, there are the intangibles. Perhaps I’m just not into the HOWC the way I normally am. I’m really enjoying riding my new mountain bike and am working on getting better. Honestly, (and I would never have believed this) many days I grab the mountain bike because I am so much more excited to ride it than ride on the road. While I still really enjoy riding on the road, jumping on the MTB inevitably brings new adventure to every ride. Not all the adventure is great, as I took my first not one, but two endo’s on a ride the other day. Nevertheless, riding MTB is a blast; it reminds me of riding to elementary school through the woods on my single speed coaster brake bike. Looking back, that must have really been an adventure!

And then there are the priorities, priorities, priorities. My eye has been off the cycling “ball” a bit anyway lately. Tracy recently resigned from her job and we are spending lots of great time together. Tracy is quite a bit younger than me, and for years we have discussed the idea of her not working and “retiring” before I am truly an old man. We’re fortunate to be able to do this, and we are giving it a test run that may wind up being permanent. In any case, we decided it’s time for action, not just talk.

If I’m simply bored with leading the HOWC, there are potential solutions, but the obvious ones are kind of a Catch-22:

I could stick to rolling routes with a lot of pacelines and take the ride back to the “Super Strenuous” pace of summers past. From a safety standpoint I don’t think there is much you can do on a bicycle with more potential for a big crash than 25+mph pacelines, especially with a different group of people every week. I know I’m not the only one who gets the heebie-jeebies at times regarding fast pacelines. While we have never had a multi-bike paceline accident (or really any kind of paceline crash, for that matter), the karma doesn’t feel right for testing that luck. Besides, while hard pacelines do a ton for building fitness, you have to really be fit to “enjoy” them. (Is enjoy even the right word?) Not having done the supersonic pacelines since the summer of 2010, I doubt I have the fitness to do them. So doing them builds fitness…if you are fit enough to do them. Catch-22!

We could do the type of rides we typically do in the spring where we do a six-pack of climbs on Cougar, Squak, and Tiger Mountains. Doing hard climbing focused rides would rapidly build fitness…but I don’t feel fit enough (and it feels like the wrong time of the year) to get excited about doing the arduous climbs required to increase fitness. Catch-22!

Without the super hard HOWC rides I know I will not achieve my normal fall high level of fitness. It’s this fitness that has allowed me to defy the odds and continue breaking my own PR’s on five local climbs I identify at the beginning of every year. Not having the fitness is OK, since I don’t think I will be able to pump myself up enough to even try for the PR’s. Oh well, there is always next year when I’ll be yet another year older, but that hasn’t stopped me so far. I can chide myself because the 2012 PR challenge will be even harder to achieve. I hope I can muster up the enthusiasm and effort for at least one climb this fall, because that’s really all it takes to compare this year’s version of me with last year’s. Maybe I’ll surprise myself again. Surely there is a Catch-22 in here somewhere?

I need to improve my mountain bike skills without getting hurt. You can't get better on a mountain bike without putting yourself at risk of crashing. If you fall off and hurt yourself trying to become more skilled, you might be too injured to ride and develop better skills. Catch-22!

As far as my apathy for group rides and maybe a yearning for the way things were in the past, the last paragraph of the Carolina Cycling News article sums things up well regarding new riders, “The ride leader and his lieutenants were serious about their roles, because the safety of the group depended on you, the weakest link. If you did not follow the rules, you were chastised. Harshly. If you did, you became a member of something spectacular. The Peloton.”

Since I have been starting the ride in Issaquah, I’ve been on my own leading the ride and I do miss the “lieutenants” who used to share the burden and give me a week (or even an hour during a ride) off.

I could ask any new rider to email me before joining the ride. I’d send him the link to the article. Perhaps that would help.

Maybe I just miss the good old days of group rides, even if I wasn’t around for many of them. You know, when it felt like a peloton working together.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Hills of the West Coast Idolization or Inspiration?

Miles: 55 Climbing: 2756’ Route: Tibbets—Issaquah-Hobart—216th—Witte—Lake Sawyer—Moneysmith—148th—168th—SE Wax—196th—Cedar Grove—Issaquah-Hobart—Tibbets (XXX Root Beer Drive-in with Reg and Carl to check out the 55-57 Chevy car show) Participants: 7 Attrition Rate: 0 Cima Coppi: 1st (tie) Dan F and me 3rd Kirk N

We had a fantastic ride with a great group today, but it was a little sad to see that the sun was noticeably lower in the sky at our 8am start than it was a month ago. Hey, at least the sun was out!

When I work with athletes as a cycling coach, I try and put myself into their shoes and think and feel like they do. Some of these people are natural athletes, while others come by gains much harder. A big part of coaching is helping people become motivated and inspired. I say “helping,” because you can’t talk somebody into being super-psyched to do the hard work it takes to improve. Each person has to find their own inspiration and motivation, and a good coach will help them find it.

Looking for inspiration from athletes that play professional sports has never been my thing. How would I relate? I’ve been a pretty decent athlete all my life, but I knew very early on in my high school sports career that I was never going to be able to hit a 98mph fastball. And forget about that “change-up” moving all over the place at 80mph! For sure, I also knew I would never dunk a basketball two handed behind my head, but I did at least approach talent of some sort with competitive amateur golf. Well, I could try and convince myself that I was closer to being talented, but the difference between a good amateur two handicapper and a PGA Tour player is like the difference between a local Cat 3 Crit winner and Lance Armstrong.

So where does one look for inspiration? Of course I find certain sports stories very inspirational, but it’s not usually the type of inspiration I can translate for my purposes. We can look to elite professional athletes for motivation, but most fans seem to idolize athlete celebrities rather than find inspiration from them. It does appear to be a pretty glamorous lifestyle, but I’m not sure how that can inspire amateur athletes who will always be amateurs. While we didn’t have any sports celebrities on today’s ride, I did find some inspiration.

All summer I’ve struggled to find a competitive drive to motivate me when the going gets tough on the HOWC. I have not had the impetus to do what it takes to ride really hard. I’m not sure what lit the fire today, but I had a bit of something that enabled me to ignore the burning in my legs a few times when I put the pedal to the metal. I was pleased that on the usual Moneysmith “free for all” I was the only one able to go with Dan F and Igor G, two strong riders. On the final hard climb of the day, the one that matters the most (at least for me), at the top it was just Dan and me. I’ll take some inspiration from Dan when he said at the end of the climb, “Tom, you’re climbing well today.” Better yet, he told me that he was at 95% of his MHR on the final section, a clear indicator that he wasn’t sandbagging me! Hopefully I can draw upon this the next time I face a “go or no go” decision on a HOWC climb. Perhaps I’ll try to use Dan’s much appreciated compliment as a mantra in such occasions. Hey, whatever it takes to help one forget about that pain firing up in the legs, right?

Dan is a HOWC regular that I rode up many climbs with last year who has been leaving me in another zip code this summer. Not feeling “unfit” this year, perhaps I need to look elsewhere for the explanation? In any case, riding up Tiger Mountain with Reg N at a pretty strong pace earlier in the ride had to have been in the back of my mind. Reg was solid as a rock today, and as usual when he is on the ride, I heard several quiet inquiries as to how old Reg is. Some people are lucky to look younger than their chronological age, but to me it’s super impressive that Reg doesn’t ride his chronological age. He doesn’t look it either. Reg is a “local hero” of mine, and I hope that I can continue to take inspiration from what he accomplishes on the bike. For his latest achievement, take a look at this:

With 1943 miles and 88,000’ of climbing over 18 straight riding days, many at high altitudes, the Ridge of the Rockies has got to be one of the toughest tests around. Yeah, the guys on TV are racing in their “tours,” but they get rest days!

It’s fitting that this is the weekend that the Vuelta gets underway (the final Grand Tour of the year), and perhaps I’ll watch a stage or two. While I certainly can understand and appreciate just how hard these guys ride and how incredibly fast they climb, I doubt I’ll find any inspiration or motivation from watching these riders. After all, how many of us can relate to people who can ride tempo pace up a sustained 12% grade climb?

I encourage the cyclists I coach to be inspired by a “local hero” of theirs rather than some cyclist playboy on TV. I might suggest something like picking out a friend who is a stronger rider than themselves, someone that the rider would like to drop. Become motivated, and then inspired by how this rider accomplishes the things he does on a bike. What is it that they have done to become as good as they are? Learn from them, set a goal of becoming stronger than they are, and then make it happen.

Reg N is kicking ass while riding at an age I will keep confidential, but believe it when I say that he leaves many younger riders shaking their heads at his fitness and skill. Reg is no superhuman, but combine some good genetics with a healthy lifestyle and some very smart training on the bike, and you get someone who is defying the clock.

I prefer my inspirational moments in the flesh and blood, and today all of us got a large dose of it from Reg N.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Hills of the West Coast Numbers don’t lie, or do they?

Miles: 61 Climbing: 2576’ Route: Tibbets—Ravensdale—Veazie—Cumberland—Enumclaw—218th climb—Lake Sawyer—Witte—Maxwell—Cedar Grove—Tibbets Participants: Emil K David L Jeff M Me

It’s hard to compare rides by the numbers. How can a rider compare a solo ride into the wind with a group ride over the same route where one rider does a lot of the work? So what if a rider went faster on the group ride than when solo? What does that prove? How would I go about comparing today’s ride intensity with the bazillion other HOWC rides I have led since 2003?

To start, today’s just felt like a ride amongst friends. The only thing that made our ride even feel like a HOWC was the fact that we did the same basic route as on June 12th. Back then, we had a gang of ten including a cadre of very strong riders who upped the ante. On the 12th we averaged a hair over 20mph:

On our way out to Enumclaw and back, we managed just over 19mph, and the ride was very laid back and it never felt like we were riding very hard. It was a nice change of pace from the normal HOWC. Even when I was on the front today I wasn’t working particularly hard, certainly not as hard as on June 12th just following Ian L’s wheel! As always, even though I felt good during the ride, I was tired after the ride, so perhaps we just rode harder than I thought we did.

We had a brisk wind this morning as we headed south and that same wind pushed us back home when we turned north. Could we have had one of those “bad luck” cycling winds on the 12th, and ridden into the wind for much of the ride? Actually, that wouldn’t have mattered much, except for Ian L, who did a massive amount of work on the front of that ride. We did throw in an extra 8 mile loop on the 12th, but it was not out of character with the rest of the ride.

Today we had the smallest HOWC gang in a very long time, but it was a great ride. Not only did we all know each other well, we were all part of Team High Performance Cycling:

On the 12th we had ten riders, but two riders did a lot of the work, and today we had four who split time on the front pretty evenly. You would think that being just four would have made today’s ride feel harder, especially compared to sitting in the draft on June 12th.

Could it be that averaging 20mph is simply a lot harder than averaging 19mph, no matter how many riders there are and who is doing the hard work on the front? Of course it could, but I can’t even quantify that. There are just too many variables that cannot be accounted for. Just think about the guys on TV who average 25mph day in day out during the Tour de France. Yes, there 190 riders, but you better believe that they don’t split the work evenly. These guys are on TV for a reason.

My power meter numbers confirm that I did indeed ride quite a bit harder on June 12th. At least some numbers don’t lie, and wattage holds you accountable as well.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Hills of the West Coast Competiton...and Pride

Miles: 61 Climbing: 3300’ Route: Tibbets—Issaquah-Hobart Road—Tiger from the north—200th—Lake Francis—Cedar Grove—154th—Coal Creek—89th—116th—Enatai—Medina—Kirkland—NE 70th—Old Redmond Road—West Lake Sammamish Participants: 9 Attrition Rate: 1, even though technically he finished Hero of the Day: Greg, but no one but me knows it

While I have ridden the roads we were on today a million times, I had never done them all on the same ride. We did a kind of suburban circumnavigation route, working our way clockwise from Issaquah to Maple Valley to Renton to Bellevue to Medina to Hunts Point to Kirkland to Redmond and then ultimately back to Tibbets Park in Issaquah. As opposed to venturing out into the hinterland as we often do, today we kept things close to the vest. Traffic was incredibly light for almost the entire ride, and I don’t think five cars passed us on the sometimes busy four miles of Issaquah-Hobart Road down to Tiger Mountain Road.

It was a great day, we had a great group, and we did a great ride.

Having led the ride for eight years, there isn’t a whole lot I have not seen before and today was no exception. Nevertheless, I do have some reflections based on my observations on the road.

We had a double Olympic Gold Medalist with us (Greg from Team High Performance Cycling), and while he earned his medals in a kayaking event, it’s not hard to see how things translate over to cycling. Check out this resume:

Greg is a strong rider who just goes for it at all times. On 200th off of Issaquah-Hobart we established a regroup about two miles away at the intersection of 244th. I was the only one who noticed that Greg dropped his chain, and by the time I saw this he was quite a bit off of the back. With my little mirror I watched him put his head down and pour on the coals. The group had splintered a bit, but everyone was in sight of each other at all times. Greg motored on along, obviously not concerned about the big deficit he had to dig out of, nor the fact that it was not likely that he would catch up to the front of the group. He didn’t, but that’s not the point.

It was a totally unnecessary competition, conducted only with himself, but you could tell he gave it a big effort to bridge the gaps. No one but me was aware that he had started from way back, everyone was going fairly hard, and he still went for it. Nobody but me likely recognizes that it was the single strongest piece of riding by anybody the whole ride, and I’m betting that Greg could care less about that.

You wonder what Olympic Champions are made of, but it’s not really much of a mystery, is it? Contrast that with certain people I have ridden with who will leave the paved road and whip across a gravel parking lot to reach the bottom of a climb 5 seconds before everyone else. What the hell is that about? Isn’t the sweetest victory often the one that only the victor recognizes?

I don’t think Greg has been riding for very long, and maybe he just doesn’t know what can and can’t be done yet. I did notice him accelerate to close some little gaps that formed right before we were coming to a stop light. While he wasted a little energy doing that, he is so competitive that it didn’t seem to dampen his enthusiasm for going for it any time he had the chance. Olympic Gold Medals don’t go to people who are afraid to “give it a shot”.

Speaking of competition, I’ve been trying to figure out why I don’t seem too motivated by it this summer. Quite frankly, it’s been a struggle to motivate myself to ride hard. Seeing Greg must have started the subliminal process, because I now think I know what the issue is. This is an odd year in that I don’t have any big specific goals on the road—i.e. no big alpine tour, etc. I was thinking a lack of focus might be a reason for a lack of competitive spirit.

But I realized today that I do have a goal for 2011. I am learning how to be a decent mountain biker, and I have a brand new 2012 Specialized Epic Expert to learn with. I am incredibly excited about my new bike, and I am like a little kid when I go out for a singletrack ride. From now on I won’t dwell on the competitive thing. I’ll continue to lead the HOWC and stop wondering why I am content to just follow the wheels on less hilly routes than I normally take the ride on. Maybe I am subconsciously saving energy for my next MTB adventure:)

So there is competition, and then there is pride. Pride is what will keep me leading the ride, and trying to ride well. And pride is what several other people must have had on their minds today. We had one rider who was often off the back a little during the first half of the ride, but not far enough that he didn’t catch back on at a stop or if we backed off just a little. He was a bigger guy, one of those people who look like they are likely a locomotive on the flats. While we didn’t have a bunch of big climbs today, the climbs we did do were clearly taking their toll on him. I found myself directly behind this rider on West Lake Sammamish very late in the ride. When he rotated to the front of the paceline, right away he was riding off the pace. I quietly suggested that if he was tired, he could just rotate off the front, no problem.

Pride can be a powerful thing. Instead of heading to the rear for a rest, this rider actually upped his pace by about three mph. He wasn’t up there for long, but he made his point. Unfortunately, when he got to the back, I watched him get shot out of a cannon backwards, receding into the next zip code, if not county.

Just before we reached Newport Way, I let the group go while I waited for this rider. As he rolled up, he was apologetic about not wanting to hold us up. I told him that there was no reason to drop someone near the end of the ride when they may not know how to get home. And what did he do when we rejoined the group? He went right back to the front of course!

Just before I was behind this rider, also on Lake Sammamish, I found myself behind someone who had earlier been riding quite strong, but who must have been fatiguing just a bit. He would let the door open in front of him, and then grit his teeth and close down the 15-20’ gap, forcing everyone behind him to do likewise. After this happened several times, I mentioned that he could yell “gap” and the group would slow down. He didn’t, and I’m sure he didn’t want to be recognized as the person who had let the gap form. I guess it’s OK to be gapped, as long as you are not the one who let it happen. In any case, I made sure to move back into the line one ahead of him my after my next short pull.

After you’ve done a bunch of group rides, you learn to try and not follow someone who might be struggling even the tiniest bit. Slowing and surging over and over to regain the paceline takes a tremendous amount of energy. I do my best to keep the group riding at a consistent pace, but it’s never perfect. I’ve learned that I can’t afford to waste unnecessary energy on a hard ride.

I had a good day on the ride, and yes, I guess I am proud of that. I learned something as I always do, I rode well, and while I wasn’t the strongest, I was the oldest. I have no way of knowing, but I think I was the only one who noticed that. In addition, it’s also been a ZAD (Zero Advil Day). For proper context on that comment, see the post below.