Mar 30, 2011

Something is in the air

I write this with trepidation, in fear that I will bring on the proverbial jinx. It’s been a couple weeks since I’ve been able to squeeze in back-to-back outdoor workouts on the bike due to rainy weather, but this week was the week. I’m hoping that this puts the end to our rainy season because it certainly seems like … hmm … well something is in the air.

Keeping fingers crossed for Saturday
With Bay Area seasons, it’s hard to say, really. Winter is like fall; spring can be like fall or summer; summer is like a cold spring; and fall is more like summer than spring. But for the near future (with the exception of a Saturday glitch, which I hope will disappear), it looks like we’re going to stay dry.

I don’t really mind riding in mild rain, but it does make hard training difficult and somewhat dangerous. For hill repeats, this means I have to make numerous wet descents, and that just plain and simple isn’t fun. For short intervals, I have to go hard (sprint) on wet pavement, also plenty of opportunities to get a face full of gravel – not a practice I’m particularly fond of. I still have a memory of going down last year near GGB on one of those yellow pads that are supposedly there for traction – clearly not bike tire traction! I still have a mark on my hip from where I landed.

I’ve probably mentioned about how beautiful the Marin Headlands are this time of year with the green rolling hills. Heck, I even blogged about it in pictures. However, something I have long suspected, and finally convinced myself of this morning, is that my favorite view from the Headlands is looking at GGB from that first corner at Conzelman, when it’s absolutely pitch black out – not even twilight. 

Gorgeous, isn't it?
I don't know what it is, but the contrast of the lit up, red bridge against the dark ocean with the city lights in the background is very breathtaking. Which is probably why speeding SUVs going up Conzelman to stake out a good spot to take pictures frequently pass me by. But I digress.

Going back to my outdoor workouts, I don’t really know which one I like/dislike more, hill repeats or intervals. On the one hand, I enjoy climbing. I’m not the best at it, but I enjoy it. So that’s a plus for hill repeats. On the other hand, short intervals are just that – short. However, the 7 minutes over/under I did at the end of my routine yesterday did almost make me puke, as it’s supposed to. For those who don’t know, over/under is an interval where you sprint all out for 10 seconds, rest for 20 and repeat. Supposedly, 10 minutes of this will make you puke – I’m slowly working up to that. A reason I like to do these alone – no one needs or wants to see that, I’m sure.

And the hill repeats

Another  plus for hill repeats is that I can make a set shorter by going faster. If I’m on my last repeat and I just want to get it over with, I go as hard as I can. It hurts a bit more, but I’m done sooner. With short intervals, even though they are short, the pain of the last 90-second effort cannot be any shorter than 90 seconds. Now, something that I really dislike about short intervals is that the backside of the Headlands is for some reason about 8 to 10 degrees cooler this time of year. I nearly froze my fingers off on Tuesday. So, not that I’m keeping count, but it looks like hill repeats are my preferred form of torture. But intervals are a necessary evil to hit those anaerobic and VO2max systems. Can’t have one without the other. And yes, I can probably find another place to do these so I’m not as cold, but hey, it builds character, right? Plus, I don’t want to lose all of my Chicago street cred by letting the “cold” California weather get the best of me.

Here’s looking forward to more consistent outdoor training and not having to check the weather daily!

Mar 28, 2011

Bariani - the WTF moment

Before I get to Bariani, I guess this weekend as a whole merits a brief mention. As I wrote on Friday, a big ride with Mission Cycling was planned for Saturday - Mad Marchness. Also on the books for Saturday was an 80 percent chance of rain. So there I was, at 6:30 in the morning, with all my rain gear laid out, it being as miserable as it gets outside, when all of a sudden, I get an email, Facebook update and tweet all at once - "the ride is canceled!" Granted, the messages actually said the ride was postponed to a later date, but for Saturday it was canceled. I have to say, that while I was ready to go out in that miserable weather, I was somewhat relieved that I wouldn't have to.

I was also very fortunate that the messages came in about 10 minutes before I was about to apply embro to my legs, and I would have hated to be all embrocated with nowhere cold to ride. So, instead of riding in the rain outside, I figured I'd go train indoors for a couple of hours. Of course, as I was done with a two-hour session indoors on the bike, the clouds began to part and the rest of the day was relatively pleasant - Murphy's law?

Now Bariani. My race didn't start until 11 a.m. and was only about an hour and 30 minutes away (though the way I drive I made it in an hour and 15), so I had the luxury of a 6 a.m. wake up. The problem was that I really didn't feel like racing. My body felt lethargic, my stomach uneasy (not in the nervous sense), and I just plain and simple wasn't in a racing mood. But I needed the miles, the drive wasn't long and I was already registered - there really wasn't a good excuse for not going out there. 

My warmup felt okay, the legs felt decent, but I was still not in racing mood. By the time we lined up, the wind picked up. I staged somewhere in the middle of the pack. After the usual instructions, we were given the go ahead and the race began. I never quite felt comfortable in that peloton and found myself at the back a few times. The few attempts I had made to move up to the front were quickly reduced to naught with the next turn, the force of the wind and reshuffle of the pack. There are probably a lot of "coulda, shoulda, woulda" things I can include, but I'm not really a fan of those. My mind didn't feel like racing, my body didn't get into the race and on lap three I got dropped off the back - "WTF?!" I thought to myself.  It was just a little bit of a gap, but with the force of wind it seemed impossible to catch back on, as if there was a stick between me and the guy in front of me holding me at a constant distance. And then, the pack started to slowly move away from me. That's when my race ended. I finished lap three, signaled to the officials that I was done and headed to my car. I wasn't motivated for anything more and I just wanted to get out of there and go home.

It was weird to be dropped like that. I've raced most of those guys this season and at one point or another I also placed higher than most guys out there that day, and I definitely wasn't dropped by them at any of the previous races. The poor performance and result were disappointing, but not debilitating. I'm not the one to dwell on the past - I think about it only to the extent it will motivate me to train harder for the next race. I'll definitely do this race again next year to get this monkey off my back.

This week looks good for my outdoor training and I'm hoping to have a redeeming performance at Apple Pie on Sunday to get my mojo back before I step away from racing for a month and do a few endurance events in April. Now, it's time to push the reset button.

Mar 25, 2011

Weather, three-day blocks and warmth in numbers

Welcome to my Friday ramblings!

It’s been (and continues to be) a rainy week here in San Francisco. But despite the fact that I do complain about it to other San Franciscans, I can’t really take myself or other complaining parties seriously. I’m still only a year out of Chicago and I remember very well what March feels like there. I actually think they got some snow this week. Another reason that I don’t take the complaints seriously is that once we are out of the rain, it doesn’t rain for like seven months straight, and for anyone who’s been randomly caught in a midwestern thunderstorm, that counts for a lot.

While rains may be annoying when I’m trying to get my training in, they certainly don’t stop me from going indoors and doing some lung-busting intervals at M2. I was actually lucky enough to catch some sunshine this Tuesday, as I mentioned earlier. Not to mention, if it hadn’t rained, I wouldn’t have had all the fun skiing last weekend. I guess what I’m saying is, “take the bad with the good and look at the positive side of things” – we’re almost into the dry season. Oh, and remember what a gift from nature January was!

*            *            *

So this week marks the start of my fourth training block, and I discovered that I really like the three-day block patterns – three days on the bike, one day off. Somewhere among the “on” days I work in an easy ride, but usually not more than one per week. So a training week would normally have a high intensity three-day block followed by a day of rest and another three-day block with the last day of the three reserved for recovery. Then another day off, and the cycle repeats. It’s hard to maintain this pattern with weekend racing, so I typically switch it up with a three-day block and a two-day block. The first day of the two-day block being the race. Obviously things change even more when an A race is approaching.

Regardless of whether I can get two three-day blocks in per week, I always get at least one and it’s been paying off huge. The biggest change I’ve noticed is the time it takes me to recover before I can put in another long, hard effort. I used to need two days off the bike after two hard days on the bike. Now, one day of recovery is plenty even after three hard days, and I’m ready to get back to hard work, which definitely makes high weekly volumes easier to achieve. If you’re used to a “day on, day off” or “two days on, day off” pattern, I suggest trying three-day blocks (with all three days being at high intensity) for a few weeks and see if you notice any positive changes. Fair warning – the first two weeks, you will probably not like yourself very much on day three.

*            *            *

Two things are planned for tomorrow: (1) Mad Marchness, which is a great event where Mission Cycling folks get together and ride 96 miles or so from San Francisco to Santa Cruz; and (2) 80 percent chance of rain. If you’ve been reading regularly, you know I’ve been down this path before: Cantua Creek looked like it was going to be rained out, but it was nice and dry; Snelling looked like it would be 28 and snowing, but it was also nice and dry, and sunny; the day of the Merco RR it was raining, but the water stopped falling from the sky right before my race was set to start, and it looks like Bariani, which looked like it was going to be rainy, will be dry and sunny as well.

Tomorro, however, I don’t think there is a chance in hell that I can avoid getting wet, but unlike all the events above, I don’t have the “ugh, this is going to be miserable” feeling in my gut. I’m actually looking forward to the ride regardless of conditions because it will be with cycling friends, in a sort of non-competitive atmosphere – not counting the choco-milk chugging challenge and the three timed segments – and I’m sure that the chatter (not of our teeth) will distract all of us from the potentially inclement weather and whatever obstacles the road may present. This ride may make my toes cold, but it will surely warm the heart. Oh, and it will keep my legs nice and ready to work for Bariani the next day. It’s always a good idea to ride a century before a race, right?

Mar 22, 2011

Skiing and back to hard training

After a very light week and a weekend off the bike, it’s time to get back to some heavy duty training and racing. But before I get to that, I can’t not write about this past weekend and how absolutely epic it was.

About a month or so ago, I found out that a friend of mine was coming for her annual visit to San Francisco, from the far, far away land of St. Petersburg, Russia, and that a ski trip would be a great welcoming activity. So what was the first thing I did? If you guessed, looked at my race calendar, you’d be right. Wards Ferry was on the menu for Saturday the 19th, and I figured that’s a race I can really do without. Skiing it was.

I figured we’d be lucky with powder when I saw the weather forecast for the week ahead called for rain, rain and more rain, which nicely translates to snow at certain elevations. The downside of this is that Tahoe is sometimes a bitch to get to when chain control is out on I-80.  This time, however, it was a bit more complicated. Forty or so cars decided they would occupy the same physical space at the same time, which resulted in the highway getting shut down and many people having to spend the night in Colfax. After some deliberation, we decided to get some shut eye, get up at 4 and head out once the highway opened.

This turned out to be a perfect plan, as by 9:30 we were at Sugar Bowl. At some point during the drive, I looked at my phone and saw that Isaac tweeted that the Wards Ferry race was cancelled due to snow. On the one had, I was surprised as, it doesn’t go above 2200 feet and I didn’t expect that snow would be at that elevation that weekend. On the other hand, I was kind of happy I didn’t miss that race.

Now back to Sugar Bowl, and holy cow, I have never seen so much snow in my life. Just feet and feet of glorious powder with even more on the way. I’ve only been skiing for about 5 years, but people who’ve skied for decades were saying they’ve never seen anything like it. But that’s just the beginning of it. We woke up the next morning to news that Alpine was closed due to strong winds, the road to Sugar Bowl was closed due to snow and Homewood was letting anyone ski for just $25. So after some debate (which inevitably happens when you have 10 people trying to decide on one resort to ski), the economics and proximity won and we were headed to Homewood.

It’s a small resort with only a handful of lifts, but there weren’t many people there due to the weather and there was plenty of fresh snow to be tackled. By Sunday, it was so deep, that I couldn’t even make fresh lines with my skis (only 76 under the foot), but with some speed, it was possible. I did get stuck quite a few times, however, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as one guy I saw who was up to his armpits in snow and couldn’t get out. I had such a great time that this was the first time in a long time that I actually wanted to ski until the last lift. I really need to get me some powder skis for next year. 

Just to give you an idea of how much snow there was, here's one of my friends chasing another one of my friends through three feet of powder.

Now then, combing back to cycling. I have to say, I’m still holding a grudge against DST for taking away the early morning light. Hill repeats take a long time if you’re doing enough of them to make it count, and my work day isn’t really elastic. So what do I do when I need more time? I just wake up earlier. I don’t think I’ve ever gone up Conzelman when it was this dark out - no sight of dawn at 6:10 a.m. Descending down McCullough in pitch black darkness, even with a 400 lumen light, was quite an experience, too.

When I’ve done repeats in the past, I’ve usually done the same steady efforts on each repeat. This time, I decided to incorporate some of my indoor training to my outdoor training. For the first repeat, I aimed at 100 percent, building within the interval with the strongest push coming toward the end of the climb. For the second repeat, I did a 10-second stand at the end of each even minute, still attempting to arrive at 100 percent average watts at the end of the interval. I was close. I haven’t had the chance to look at my Golden Cheetah data, but I’m guessing some watts were lost in the standing/sitting transition and I’d like to tighten that up a bit so there is more of a flow, and I can just keep a more steady power output regardless of position.

The third interval was the same as the second one, except that I stood the last 10 seconds of every minute. The watts slipped a bit more, but not by a statistically significant amount, which makes me think that my assumption in the above paragraph was correct. But I’ll know more once I have a closer look at interval plot.

The fourth one was a real treat. It consisted of 90 seconds at about 90 percent, followed by 30 seconds standing at over 100 percent. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. This is the first time I’ve tried this on a hill and I have to say, I really like this set. It’s good practice for keeping something extra in reserve when you need to go on the attack, or counter the attack. Of course, as we (who race) know, sometimes keeping something in reserve is not really an option – all depends on who’s in the lead on the climb, I suppose.

The last set was a variation of the above, but consisted of two minutes at 85 percent followed by one minute at 100 to 115 percent, repeating three times, or until I got to the top.

Aside: I like this Strava widget thing, but the "There are no achievements on this ride" kind of bothers me. Maybe almost 4700 feet in 34 miles isn't much, but it's certainly some kind of an achievement. 

If you’ve never tried doing repeats this way, I’d strongly recommend it. It is definitely less monotonous than going up the same hill five times can be. It also helps you work on your technique of coming out of the saddle. Oh, and while I’m on the subject. For those who don’t know, if you’re riding in a peloton and are about to stand out of the saddle, it’s usually a good idea to throw your bike forward with your arms as you do it. Otherwise, Newton’s law kicks in and as you stand on your bike, the bike actually stalls or goes back slightly, which can take out the rear wheel of the rider behind you, and it could be your teammate. I’ll end this with those words of wisdom. 

Mar 18, 2011

Calling an audible

So last week after Merco I went out on Tuesday and popped eight repeats up McCullough at 330+ watts, feeling great all the way to the end.

This Tuesday, after Madera, I went to M2 due to foul weather in the morning and thought my legs were going to fall off. By the time the second set was done, I was happy to be in doors and not suffering up Hawk Hill – not that indoors was much easier. By the end of the workout, I was really in a lot of pain. I thought about it and decided to call this a rest week.

On my original schedule, this would have to have been another 200+ miler with next week being the rest week, but due to my previously set skiing plans this weekend, getting 200 miles in while showing up for work each day would be damn near impossible. No to mention, the weather sucks. I’m already mentally prepared to be soaked four days out of the week next week (all between a set of hill repeats, intervals, Mad Marchness and Bariani), but I don’t mind holding off on riding in the rain until Monday.

Seems like everything came together nicely, screaming for me to take it easy this week and I intend to do just that. After logging an hour and a half at M2 on Tuesday and rolling around the Headlands on Thursday, I’ll call this a week at 60 miles and about four hours on the bike. I am, however, very much looking forward to giving my quads a workout hitting the slopes this weekend. Hopefully the time off the bike will help my body rest up and my mind get motivated for rainy riding next week, brrrr. 

The good news that the rain brings is that it looks like I'm going to have some sweet powder to ski on this weekend. Pending Highway 80 staying open tonight. 

Mar 15, 2011

Cycling and marketing

If you think about it, the two go hand-in-hand fairly frequently. If you ride for a team or a club that has sponsors, each time you put on your kit, you become a riding billboard, promoting local businesses, companies and bike manufacturers. There is really nothing wrong with that. After all, if someone sponsors you by offering discounts or free products, a great way to thank them is to proudly display their logo.

Lately, however, I’ve noticed a slight shift in marketing as it pertains to cycling and I’m not sure that I’m that crazy about it. In fact, I don’t like it at all. It’s one thing for a cyclist to wear a kit displaying logos, it’s quite another to use social media to become a spokesman for it.

I know Radio Shack is a name team sponsor, but does that mean that all the guys on the squad have to tweet about how they love the new phones they just got at Radio Shack? There are more recent examples, like Ted King of Liquigas promoting Speedplay pedals. And only yesterday, there was a quite a bit of chatter from the Garmin-Cervelo squad about New Balance footwear. The examples are frequent and numerous.

If Ted King really loves his Speedplays, I don’t have an issue with him tweeting about it or “independently” promoting the product. Similarly, if Dave Zabriskie really hasn’t worn anything other than New Balance in the last decade, I don’t mind him mentioning it. I would also understand if either of them kept quiet about non-sponsoring, competing brands they really like. After all, sponsors are in great part responsible for their salaries and it’s not smart to go against he hand that feeds you.

The problem for me is that I am now unable to distinguish between genuine opinion and marketing shtick. I value the opinion of the pros about the equipment they use because unlike most of us, they use more of it and they use it more, which in essence makes them experts. But if they are experts who only give an opinion directed by the powers above, then all that wealth of knowledge becomes hidden somewhere under the all mighty dollar.

I’d prefer a half-truth to total BS. If a pro cycling team gets equipment and some of its members really love it, have them promote it. Don’t force those who are just okay with it turn into corporate sellouts. It’s not healthy for the sport and it makes me value all of their opinions less because I have no way to distinguish between fact and fiction – and doesn’t that actually hurt the product? Isn’t it bad when potential buyers aren’t certain of the validity of the opinions and reviews? We already know that the cyclists are being paid a salary by the sponsor they are promoting, adding a fact that they are being “forced” to promote it just makes the promotion even more specious.

Bikers were put on teams to ride their bikes, not sell merchandise. Let’s keep it that way. 

Mar 14, 2011

Madera stage race report

“Umm, it’s still dark. I wonder what time it is?” – I think to myself as I wake up in our hotel room in Madera on Saturday. IPhone tells me it’s 5:15, exactly 15 minutes before the alarm was set to ring. Might as well get up, and out of bed, and start getting ready for the first race. Who the hell thought it would be a good idea to have a crit at 7:30 in the morning? And why do Cat. 4s have to go before Cat. 5s? I’m not trying to say that Cat. 4s are some hot-ticket item, but aren’t those races we’ve done to get where we are worth at least an extra 40 minutes of sleep? Apparently not.

I usually don’t have a big meal if I don’t have at least two hours to digest it before the race, so I snacked on a banana, a cereal bar and a Forze nut bar before the race. I figured it would be enough glycogen to get me through 45 minutes of racing.

The sun was just coming up as I parked at registration.

The Crit

I got to staging around 6:15 with plenty of time for registration, warm-up, a few bathroom breaks and a calm and organized getting ready process. I had taken the Thursday before off the bike and went for a relatively easy ride on Friday just to keep the blood flowing in the legs. The warm-up felt good, the watts were there, the HR was moving as it’s supposed to, so physically I knew I was where I needed to be.

The one good thing about being the first group to race the crit was the fact that I was able to take a couple of laps around the course and see what it has to offer, as well as scout out the railroad tracks I’d be going over, and over, and over. It was a four-corner crit, with very wide lanes and corners – it looked like it was going to be fast.

We all line up, get our instructions, the whistle blows and off we go. At stake in the crit were two five-second premes and 20-, 10- and 5-second bonuses for the top three places.

This being only my second crit, I don’t really have a clue as to what the hell is going on in the race and I’m not afraid to admit it. In this race, however, staying at the front and moving around the field wasn’t as much of an issue as at Merco because we weren’t spread out curb to curb. Nevertheless, I really couldn’t find a place where I was comfortable, or a place from which I thought I would be competitive. I went on the nose a couple of times, one of which was right before the bell rang for a preme lap – well, you can guess how that ended.

One exciting, if that’s a right word to use, moment in the crit was when a Mike’s Bikes rider next to me went to accelerate and his bike bucked like a bronco, which caused him to pull over for a mechanical. I say exciting because he was about five feet to my right and my heart jumped about five beats when I saw him do it. As I later found out, his rear wheel fell out of his drops and the referee would not let him take a free lap. While unfortunate for him, the referee was actually correct. If the mechanical is caused by you, e.g., bolts not tight enough or a tubular becoming unglued, that is not the type of mishap for which a free lap is awarded. Now, if your wheel disintegrates under you, or you simply get a flat, that’s another story.

Another thing that came across my mind as we were going around in circles is that I was really bored and that could be dangerous because with the high-speed corners, it’s important to always pay attention. So around and around we went some more (if this description sounds boring, you’re getting the gist of how I felt during), and then finally the bell for the final lap was rung. I was near the front as we were going into the last corner, but the group bunched up and it looked like a ton of people were gunning for the same line. If all I was racing was a crit, maybe I would have been more aggressive, but with two more races to go, I eased off and came across the finish with the pack. To my later surprise, the tail end of the pack somehow got 10 seconds tacked on to our cumulative time. Those 10 seconds ultimately didn’t matter, but I was still a bit confused as to how that time was calculated.

The post crit and pre TT

It was abundantly clear that I wasn’t in any of the top three positions, in fact I ended up 29th, so I didn’t bother sticking around and headed back to the hotel for the complimentary breakfast. I was glad to have the crit behind me and looking forward to my favorite disciplines yet to come, the TT and the RR.

I brought my bike up to the room and went to feast. It was around nine and I was starving. I had a waffle with syrup, two stuffed crossants, a banana and a yogurt before I felt satiated enough to continue with my day. I went back up to the room, grabbed my TT bike and headed out to the next scheduled event.

I got to the TT staging area around 9:50, or ten minutes before the first wave and parked among the P/1/2 guys getting ready to roll out for their races. My start wasn’t until 12:06, so I had plenty of time to set up and get ready. The first thing I did (after making a mandatory bathroom pit-stop) was get my bike and wheels ready for the race. Then, I took a seat on the rear bumper of my car and started to massage my legs with my roller stick.

I had a dilemma. I know how to warm up for a TT, but I’ve never done a TT warm up after having done a hard crit just hours prior. Do I go as hard in the warm-up as I usually do, or do I go easier, how long should my threshold efforts be? After talking to a few buddies at the race, I decided to go long, but easier than I would have normally.

The TT

I got on the trainer and figured I’d take about 30 minutes to warm up, 10 minutes of easy pedal at about 50 percent, followed by some efforts and a few minutes of pedaling after. The legs felt surprisingly good and seemed to be primed for a hard effort on the bike. “Good,” I thought to myself, “the waffle must be making it through my blood stream nicely.” I got off the bike with about 15 minutes until my start, threw on my race rear wheel and started to take a roll toward the bathroom. After a few pedal strokes, I felt something snag. I let up and tried pedaling again, another snag. I looked down, but couldn’t see what was wrong. I quickly got the work stand out of my car, threw my TT bike up there and immediately located the problem, the chain was stuck between the chainrings – weird, huh? I pulled it out, shifted into my big ring (the only one I intended on using) and went on my way. A trip to the bathroom, then a roll to the start and I was ready to go.

As always, I was a few minutes early to the start, so I rolled around a bit and went back when there were about 5 people ahead of me, which meant it was about 2.5 minutes till go time. The guy ahead of me went, I rolled to the line, the guy behind me grabbed my seatpost to give me a hold. I waited for the 15-second call to clip in my other leg, rotated to 3 and 9 and waited for it. Three, two, one – go! Off I went.

I got up to speed quickly, pushing a big gear and going at over 27mph with a slight cross wind coming over my left shoulder. The wind was from the north west and the race course was a trapezoid (you guys remember what that is, right?), with the first leg heading west, the second south, the third west and the fourth northwest. I knew that this was the course where you had to go hard right off the bat, there was no pacing here, otherwise, I’d be losing to the field immediately.

I passed my 30-second man on the first leg, and right after I noticed a visitor on my right forearm. It was a bee. I blew on it a couple of times, then finally I had to spit on it  to dislodge it from my arm. I wonder how much that cost me? The bee did leave it’s stinger in me. “Pain in three, two, one – zoom!” Faster I went. I caught my minute-man on leg two and when I made the penultimate turn onto the third leg I knew I was riding the time trial of my life.  As the crosswind was pushing into me, I knew I had to keep pressure and continue turning the big gear. Then came the 3 to go marker. “Only 7 or 8 minutes to go, and you don’t yet feel like puking” I told myself, “you can go harder!” I shifted into a harder gear and kept pushing. Then came the final turn into the headwind. I tucked for the final mile and shifted into an even harder gear. I was hitting 27 to 28 mph going into the finish. “It can’t hurt much more than now,” I thought as I shifted down another gear and that’s where I apparently hit 30mph (I’m still going into a headwind here). The finish came at me fast and before I knew it I was over the line, rolling toward my car, completely out of breath, just short of puking – just as it should be.

At that point, I knew I left it all on the line and could not have asked any more of my legs on that effort. I’ve never gone so fast in a TT (25.4 mph), and while I know that there is still a lot of ways to improve that (and I intend to), for me it was progress and that’s what counted. I racked my bike, put away my wheels, got into compression tights, played with my roller some more and headed to the reg table to see if any results were posted. I spent so much time talking to people, eating and rolling my legs, that results were indeed ready.

I started scanning down from the top and didn’t have to scan for long. I was sitting in 4th place at the time trial with a time of 24:37:58. I was 20 seconds out of second place, but the guy in first absolutely destroyed the field with a time of 22:55, giving him one minute and 21 seconds over second place. Barring a crash or a mechanical, he had sealed the deal on the stage race. We’d all be competing for second. Next to the TT results were the crit results, I quickly glanced at the positions and times on the crit, ran some quick math in my head and figured that I was not only fourth in the time trial but also on GC.

The Road Race

The strategy coming into the race was to sit in near the front and save as much energy as possible. I was in fourth and margins were slim. I only had 11 and 12 seconds on fifth and sixth places, respectively, and there was no room for error. I knew there would be plenty of break attempts by guys just out of 6th place trying to jump into GC with a  20 second time bonus and a gap. The game plan – let others chase them down.

Before I go on with the play-by-play of the road race, I have to give a proper shout out to our referee. He was awesome! Not only did he point out all the pot-holes on the rough section of the course, but when there was a break, he would go between the break and the field and give us time splits so we knew what was happening. Made me feel kind of PRO. I was later told he’d been the referee at the Tour of California in the past.

After a short promenade to the intersection, the race was on. The Sierra Nevada guy who was blocking for his teammate last week at Merco was now on the nose pulling the field and had no teammates in the field. I was fifth or sixth wheel back and everyone was perfectly content with letting him pull. A couple of Davis and Rio Strada guys were also at the front doing work, while I was just trying to stay out of the wind. A few miles into it and the SN guy went into a solo break, and we let him go. There were over 60 miles of racing yet to be done, and we knew it was only a matter of time before we would catch him.

At around mile 11 of the 17-mile loop, the “cobbles” started. And by cobbles I mean some really crappy pavement that makes Midwestern spring pot-holes seem like a butter smooth road. To me, the worst part was the first 200-yard section that literally rattled me to the bone. The next four miles were rough, with holes, but nothing that was extremely difficult to avoid or ride over. I was keeping my fingers crossed for no flats.

I don’t believe the solo gap ever got over a minute twenty on the field and by the time we made it once around the course (one of four times) we were already bringing him back. Then, something unexpected happened, the GC leader came to the front and started to pull and he pulled pretty hard. The guy was huge, around 210 pounds, all muscle – exactly the type you want to race uphill and stay behind on the flats. Some other guys were itching for a bathroom break, so they asked him to call a natural once we caught the break. Once he agreed, there was no lack of volunteers willing to chase the break down and just after the second turn we pulled him in. As we made turn number three onto the rough section of the road, the peloton neutralized and stopped. If you’ve even wondered how cyclists do it on the road, this is how. All 40 something of us stopped and watered the local crops, then jumped back on the bikes and continued on with the race.

Lap two finished uneventfully, so did lap three and then it was on for the final lap. As soon as I saw a Mike’s Bikes rider go to the front of the field, I knew he was getting ready to launch his teammate who was sitting 12th on GC. Sure enough, the break went. But the peloton was not about to let him get away this late in the race and before leg one was over, we chased him down. No more serious break attempts materialized and when we hit the “cobbles” the GC leader came to the front, as he did the previous two times, and pulled the whole field for about 6 miles. I was fifth or sixth wheel as we approached the two rollers going into the finish. Then came the WTF moment. My legs simply had nothing more to give. I pushed as hard as I could, but a bunch of guys came around me on the first roller, I made up some distanced on the downhill, but not nearly enough to be in the top ten going to the line. My hardest push was good enough for 15th place. I was close to the leaders, but I didn’t know if I was close enough to have kept my GC spot or if I lost it due to time gaps. As I rolled by the leaders, I asked who finished where. Once I knew who the first three spots were, I realized that none of the time bonuses alone would get them over my GC time, so it was all about the gaps.

After waiting for results for what seemed like an eternity (and it nearly was), they were posted – no time gaps were assigned – and the first 16 places got the same time as the leader, which meant my GC position held. I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to do better in the road race, but was happy that I performed well enough to keep my position on GC. For my efforts, I was rewarded with $5 and a t-shirt, oh, and a great feeling of accomplishment. It was time for a beer and a burger. 

Mar 11, 2011

This morning in pictures

I figured you might be tired of my usually long posts and considering there is probably a fairly long race report coming your way Sunday evening or Monday, I'll end this week with something easy to digest. 

The Headlands have some of the most beautiful views this time of year, and considering I won't see them like this for another month or so due to the fast approaching Daylight Savings Time, and today's ride was meant to be a very easy roll to keep the legs loose for Madera this weekend, I kind of felt like stopping for pictures. No tsunami sightings, however.

Looking eastbound from the one way descent on Conzelman.
Looking toward the ocean from the one way descent on Conzelman.
Further down the same Conzelman descent.
Looking out to the lighthouse.
Looking out at the ocean over the green rolling hills.
Green hills. Enjoying them before they turn yellow.
Sun over Rodeo Beach and rolling hills.
Green rolling hills.
Rodeo Beach lagoon.
The beauty of still water.

Mar 10, 2011

Hard days are good days

I walked out of M2 last night and the breeze of warm San Francisco air hit my face. I felt there is absolutely nothing I wanted at that moment. I didn’t want to move, eat, drink, anything. The MUNI display said the bus was approaching in 10 minutes. I didn’t want to stand, I no longer felt my legs, so I figured I might as well start walking toward the underground train, and if the bus catches me, I’ll hop on. I made it about 70 percent of the way to Van Ness and Market when I saw the display at McAlister say 2 minutes. I figured I’d wait. The bus, then the train, then I was lucky to connect with another bus and half an hour after that warm breeze first hit my face, I was home. There is really no part of my brain that was functioning at that time, almost like I was stoned, I turned on the autopilot. Bedroom. Change. Compression tights. Dinner. Thirty minutes of TV. Sleep.

I love days like yesterday. It’s a day I know I gave all that I had and then some, and left absolutely everything on the bike. Not a single interval could have been harder, not a watt was wasted, I even managed to push it over 1k on the last 10-second burst when I thought my legs were going to either completely fall off, or I was just going to puke. Considering I was on the instructor’s bike facing the class, I really tried not to puke.

I haven’t written about my training in a bit, but it’s coming along. I find that for it to be most effective, I have to be a bit nutty, a bit masochistic, always motivated and never satisfied. How else would I have been able to drag myself out of the house at 5:30 in the morning on Tuesday and go up the same hill 8 times? It’s really not as bad or as boring as it sounds. Each time after the first one is a challenge. “Oof, that was a hard repeat, wonder if I have enough in me to get another one at the same power level?” That’s the thought that keeps me going, can I do one more, and then one more, and maybe I have one more in me after that one. Once you get used to pain that comes along with pushing high numbers for a long time, you stop focusing on the suffering and start looking forward to the moment when you can stop an enjoy the reprieve. And guess what? That only makes me push harder and go faster.

It feels that a lot of this year has gone by already. I mean we’re almost half way through March, and I’m only in my third training block. However, considering they are each four weeks long, I guess it makes sense. I’m kind of amazed at the things I can do now that I couldn’t do 10 weeks ago and also surprised at how quickly I was able to get used to putting in 200+ miles a week. I guess it’s true what they say: the human body is very adaptable.

Racing has been a lot of fun so far, in part due to the fact that my fitness is at a level where I don’t really have to worry about being dropped or having to be an absolutely passive (a.k.a. wheelsucker) rider in the peloton. Now I get to think about strategy, and positioning, and trying to figure out who’s going to do what when and why. The higher level of fitness has definitely turned racing from a sufferfest into a chess match, not that there aren’t times when I’m suffering, but I’m suffering alongside others, and not solo off the back.

Training sessions that make me feel like what I’ve described above are the ones that make everything else possible. And I’m glad to have those days, I’m glad to be able to force myself to have those days. I think I’ve stated my training philosophy before, but I think it merits repeating: Force yourself to suffer as much as you can possibly tolerate in training, so hopefully you never have to suffer that hard in a race.

Now for a couple of days of recovery and psyching myself up for Madera Stage Race this weekend.

Mar 7, 2011

Merco race report - my first (not) stage race

There is no other way I can begin to write this blog than to applaud the organizers of Merco Cycling Classic. It was an amazing atmosphere to be a part of for the weekend, not to mention how great the event was managed. The Pro/1/2s had a four day stage race, starting on Thursday with a road race. For the rest of us, the next three days consisted of three separate events, while those same events counted toward the P/1/2's stage race GC. Friday was the individual time trial, Saturday was the downtown criterium and Sunday was the road race.


The TT began at 1pm for the pro women and went down the line with pro men, then masters, then the combined 3-4-5 field. My starting time wasn't until 3:17pm. I left the house around 9am and got to the staging area around 11:30. The skies were blue, the wind wasn't too bad, and the temperatures were picking up. It looked like a perfect day for a race.

As I walked down the road toward registration, the feel of the place gave me goosebumps. On one side of the road you have the guys from Bissell, on the other the pro women from HTC-High Road, talking about how they just returned from racing Tour of Oman. You truly had the feel of being among the top level athletes of the sport.

I began to set everything up, the trainer the wheels, my helmet, skin suit, etc. I don't really like to be rushed before a race - that's just extra anxiety that I simply don't need. My teammate, Michael, was about 30 minutes behind me on the road, so I waited for him to pre-ride the course. I put on my Zipps, with the rear having spoke covers. I wanted to test them out on the pre-ride to see if there was any cross wind that would warrant taking them off - there wasn't.

Around 12:30 we set off for our preride. Which I must say, was not an easy pre-ride - I think next weekend at Madera I'm going to do my pre-ride solo. I'm not sure which one of us was pushing the other, but for the first 2-3 miles, my legs were buzzing, despite my heart rate being at a relatively calm 140 to 150 bpm. Then they loosened up a bit and the rest of the way felt good.

We would be heading out into a head wind and up hill, which is great for a time trial because it means that coming back was a downhill with a tailwind, and I have a 55x11 on my TT bike. I marked the crest of the hill at about 3.7 miles and decided that would be the distance I would go conservatively. Coming down the backside of the hill, it was still a headwind, but the downward slope allowed speeds of 30+ mph. From the turn around, it was a 2.3 mile climb and then a bombing 3.7 mile descent into the finish. However, these were not major climbs or descents - nothing that warranted getting out of the aero position. On the way out, we would have to climb about 200 feet over almost 4 miles and on the way back, the climb was about 130 feet over 2 miles.

We finished the pre-ride just as the course was closing and the first P/1/2 women were ready to do their thing. I swung by registration, picked up my number and headed back to the car. One of the hardest things in late start races is keeping my glycogen up throughout the day. So I had a couple bananas with some Greek yogurt and a Forze bar and waited around until the right time for me to get on the trainer came along. I did a nice 40 minute warmup with 1 to 4 minute intervals at or above threshold, just to make sure all my systems were awake and functioning. Now it was race time. Oh, I should also probably mention that Friday was the first time I got on my TT bike this year, so this was as much of a race as an experiment for what I need to do better.

The rider ahead of me was a ghost (no show) and I had to wait a full minute in the gate. With 30 seconds remaining, I clipped one foot in, with 10 remaining the other. I looked down at my Garmin, and without even moving, my hear rate was at 134bpm - that's what I call nerves. Five, four, three, two, one - I was off.

What I noticed immediately is that the headwind picked up and that 3.7 mile climb up those 200 feet was not as easy as it was in the pre-ride. I found my rhythm, and my cadence, and was clipping away yard, after yard. I caught the rider who started a minute before me at about mile 3, and kept clipping away to the crest. Once the hill pitched up a bit, I slowed to a very frustrating 18 mph, but once I crested, I was able to make up the speed on the downhill approaching the turnaround. As I approached the turnaround, I felt like I was going slow and was going to be caught, but as I went around the cone and began my return, I saw my minute rider after some time and then no-one else. I likewise didn't see anyone ahead of me.

The headwind that made my slog up the 3.7 miles tough, would now be of assistance in my 2.3 mile climb out. I was climbing at 20+mph, never leaving he aero position. And then came the crest and I was in for a fast ride to the finish. From the crest to the line I was in gears between 55x11 and 55x13, hitting speeds of 33 to 36 mph. With about 1 k to go, I saw a Davis Bike Club masters rider up ahead and he was just the carrot I needed for the final push to the finish. My goal for the TT was to finish under 30 minutes and I came in at 29.45, so I was content.

Now it was the wait for the results. They were up very fast and I saw myself in the middle of the page in 16th place. I was happy with my time, but a bit disappointed not to see myself a bit higher in the standings. However, later at the hotel, as I was browsing the net, I noticed that the results were already uploaded to the USACycling website (that lighting speed around here) and as it turned out, most of the riders ahead of me were 3s and I was in 3rd place out of 11 4s that did the TT. Seeing that definitely lifted my spirits a bit. Next up on the menu was the crit. Now, it was time to go check into our hotel and relax for a bit. The most challenging part, however, was finding our room.

Guess what room number was ours?

Downtown Merced Criterium

When I registered for this event, it was going to be my first ever crit and it was a nice little crit. Pretty much four corners with one S-turn that didn't look too horrible. However, a few weeks before the race, the course was changed due to construction in Merced. The course would now go in the opposite direction and contain a hairpin turn. This didn't necessarily make me ecstatic, but I'm not really opposed to diving into the deep end of the pool when it comes to cycling. This being my first crit, I was looking to do three things: first and foremost, stay upright; secondly, not get dropped; third, learn from the experience and get the feel for the race.

I staged in the middle of the pack. Three, two, one, the whistle blew and we were off. Other than going very fast into corners and keeping an eye on everyone around and in front of me, I really had absolutely no clue what the hell was going on. I felt a bit trapped as the field moved as one giant school of fish - "how the hell do I get to the front of this thing?" - I thought to myself. "Oh, this is kind of like cyclocross - you have to stage better and sprint out of the gate for position." Okay, well there is something I learned. For the first five laps, the field moved very, very fast and then we settled into a rythm. Go fast through the turns from the start, slow down and bunch up near the hairpin, sprint out of the hairpin and slow by the start/finish line. Lather, rinse, repeat. Another thing I learned is to shift, shift, shift. I think I was in the proper gear all of three times coming out of the hairpin and doing 20+ sprints in one crit does start to catch up with you.

I'm used to going hard for much longer than 50 minutes, so I had plenty of gas in the crit, it's the experience of maneuvering through the field that was lacking. By about 15th lap, I settled into a rhythm and was just planning to make the best of it into the finish. I realized there was no way I was going to get dropped from this field, so it was all about paying attention and learning. I ended up 33rd out of 50+ racers, in the pack and only 8 seconds off the leader's time. I stayed upright and learned a thing or two about racing crits. Now I just have to learn the other 98 things that probably go with it. Mission of the day was accomplished and it was now time to watch the rest of the groups do their thing.

It is quite amazing to finish a race and then watch the Pros race on the same course. A couple of beers, a chicken sandwich and many hours of spectating later, it was time to head back to the hotel, chill out, grab dinner and get mentally ready for the road race on Sunday.

Ben Jaques-Maynes being awarded the overall leader's jersey.

Almond Blossom Road Race

As far as the weather was concerned, Sunday was a different animal. The day began as rainy and gray. Before coming down for breakfast in the morning, I checked the radar and it looked like the rain might clear out by the time my race was due to start. The rain didn’t really bother me that much because despite the fact that it was raining, it was near 60 degrees, so I knew I wouldn't be freezing.

I was at registration at 10am, two hours before my race. I got out of the car, went to get my number and went back in the car. There was no sense in sticking around outside getting wet in the rain. I pinned my number for the first time this year (I decided gluing something to my jersey in the rain wasn’t the best of ideas) and was just waiting it out before it was time to set up for the warm up.

As the minutes were ticking away, I realized that I should probably set some stuff up so I’m not rushing around like crazy later on. I set up my trainer, my bike and pumped up my trainer wheel and the front wheel. Just then, I looked inside my trunk and realized my racing wheel wasn’t in there. “Crap!” I thought to myself – “did I forget my racing wheel in the hotel?!?” Then I looked up at my roof rack and realized my race wheel was still on my crit bike from Saturday’s race. After that little mild heart attack, I proceeded to set things up, keeping in mind that I’d have another task of swapping rear wheels before race start.

By the time it was time for me to get no the trainer, the rain had practically stopped and all I had on was a base layer, my jersey, arm warmers and embro on my legs. I did wear my neoprene booties, but only to keep my feet dry from the backspray. This being my third day on the bike, I was surprised at how good my legs felt during warmup. However, I knew what I could do in that race and what I couldn’t. I knew that there was no way I’d be strong enough to survive in the break because one, this was going to be a third hard day in a row, two, only a handful of guys in the peloton raced the TT, and three, not all raced the crit the day before either. I also knew that there were only two ways this race would go down. Either a breakaway would ride into the finish, or it would be a giant, mass sprint for the line, in which case it was all about position, position, position.

I finished warming up with 15 minutes to start. I then quickly took the Kane off the rack, removed the rear wheel, threw it on the Orbea, put the other wheel back on the Kane and re-racked it. In the process, I managed to cut my finger and blood was starting to flow. With not time for fancy first aid, I just wrapped it with some sports tape and figured I’d take care of it after the race. It wasn’t anything serious, I just didn’t want to cover my bike in blood. On the way to the start, I made a bio stop and as I got out of the port-o-potty, I realized I forgot to pump my rear wheel (the one that came off the Kane). Luckily, there were cyclists right across the road and I borrowed their pump. After all that anxiety, I made it to the line with five minutes to spare – phew! I originally staged in about the fourth row, but there were some masters racers ahead of me, who were supposed to start after out group, so I asked them to move out of the way and all of a sudden I was in the front row.

Before the last guy could clip in after the whistle, we already had a guy out in front. No one was really taking it seriously and we kind of clipped along for the first few hundred yards. Then another guy bridged and the peloton decided it was time to chase them down. Unlike the crit, in the road race I feel right at home, so the first thing I did was take inventory of who was in attendance. Tri-Valley Velo, Rio Strada, Sierra Nevada, Berkley Bicycle Club and SBR all had at least three riders in the mix and I knew that in each of those teams there was at least one guy capable of getting a podium spot. For the first 17 miles of the first loop I was either on the front or near the front. Then, my legs told me I better stop being so enthusiastic, so I relegated myself into the middle of the pack to hide from the winds and recover a bit. This being my fourth mass start race of the year, I'm getting very comfortable being in the pack and can move around within it fairly easily, so I knew that any time I wanted I could get to the front without eating too much wind.

By the time we came through the finish line the first time, I was feeling a bit exhausted and I knew we had some rollers to go over, so I chucked one of my bottles that was a third full, knowing that a full second one was more than enough for the last lap.

I continued to sit in and watched the race develop – it wasn’t slow. Then, a Sierra Nevada guy went into a break taking another rider with him. The other two SN guys were blocking in front and doing a very good job of it. I was frankly surprised that none of the teams with numbers came to the front and got organized a chase. The break never went far, but at about 500m out, it was a bit too much for comfort with a disorganized peloton. I was still sitting in waiting to see what would happen. As guys tried to form into a rotating paceline in the windy section of the peloton, one of the SN guys was doing an exceptional job of screwing that effort up, forcing guys to come out into the wind to get around him. I took one pull in the paceline before the whole thing fell apart.

Despite the poor organization, we go within about 200 meters of the break that was clearly in the process of breaking down. I yelled out to let them dangle there for a while and we could just bring them in a bit later on. So the peloton let the gap grow to about 500 meters again an again the SN guys were doing a very good job of blocking. A Third Pillar rider and another with him were trying to catch the break and were sitting one two with an SN guy in the third position. “This is going to go nowhere” – I thought, so I came next to the SN guy and moved him out of the way. Now I was sitting third wheel (guess who was fourth?) and soon the Third Pillar guy would pull off, then the other guy pealed and I was on the front pulling 23-24mph into a headwind. Why? I have no idea. I waved for someone to pull through and guess what? Nada. The SN guy was planted on my wheel and no one was willing to swing around into the wind to do some catching.

So I figured I might as well make this ride into a workout. I picked it up a notch and was the first one going into a right hand turn with about 18 miles to go in the race. The break was about 400m away. I turned it up another notch taking it up to about 25mph (I’m still on the nose here) and closed it to about 200m before pulling off to the right. Luckily the guys got the point that this is as close as I can physically get them to the break and within the next km, we caught them with a group effort. Then something weird and unexpected happened.

I thought that as soon as we catch the break, the SN guy who rode my wheel the whole time would attack, but instead, the pace went dead and we rolled easy for the last miles of the race. I don’t like seeing 60 guys going into the finish line together. Everyone thinks they are Mark Cavendish and that just leads to no good. With 2km to go, I was second wheel out and decided to go solo off the front. Why? I have absolutely no clue. I went about 200 meters before my legs told me I was out of my mind. So I eased up and to my astonishment, no one was trying to blaze by me. As a rider went by, I got on his wheel.

At this time, I’m second wheel out, I’m all the way on the right side of the road with no one on my left. All of a sudden, three things happen within a split second: I hear someone yell, “attack” (why someone would yell that as if we were on a battlefield, I have no idea, but that’s a Cat. 4 race for ya); I think to myself this will lead to no good; and I hear carbon and flesh hit the ground behind me. All of a sudden, going solo of the front went from being a stupid idea to a skin-saving one (quite literally). Some guys went past me, but by that point, I had no kick to chase. With 200 meters to go, I shifted as far down as I could and pushed with all I had, passing a few guys and moving up a few places in the results. I ended up with 13th place out of more than 55 riders and only 16 seconds off the leader. Considering the great workout I got in that race, I was very pleased with the result. Luckily, the crash behind me resulted in only minor bruises and scrapes. 

Overall, this was a great tune up for the Madera Stage Race next weekend. I now know it will all come down to the TT.