Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Descents of the 508

When you tell most people about fixed gear riding, they imagine the biggest challenge comes from climbs. This may be true for steep grades of over 8%, but you will find for most riding, far and away the largest challenge, and where the most time is lost compared to standard road bikes, is in the descents.

When climbing, you lose some of the momentum of keeping a higher cadence, and you are forced to put more strain on your muscles from the larger gear. In comparison, descents with a freehub are just that - free. Your heart rate can settle down to a minimum, your legs can completely rest, and you can stretch out and assume any position you want.

On a fixed gear, your position, legs, and cardio system must all accommodate the rapid cadence required to go at higher speeds. Training and technique development can lessen the impact of high cadence motion, but it will always be there. I was able to sustain decent speeds on the descents of the Mount Laguna Bicycle Classic, maintaining speeds over 30 fairly comfortably, but in reviewing my data, I see that the effects of the higher speeds were taking a toll on my performance. Both in raised heart rate levels (which compromise digestion and recovery) and leg fatigue (especially for climbs directly following a descent).  For a century ride, this is an acceptable tradeoff. For something as epic as the 508, I will have to be more careful.

Full analysis here.

 In brief, I marked all of the sections where I topped 26 mph, and made totals of distance and time for each. Over the whole course for 2009, I spent 133 miles more than 25% (of distance) at speeds above what I should sustain with my chosen gearing (46x16). On these sections I averaged 33.5 mph, totaling almost 4 hours of descending or very fast flats.

It is an oversimplification, but I think I can get a good estimate of the extra time my descents will take by simply multiplying by the ratio of my proposed average speed. I think it's a safe bet that I can average 26 mph on all these sections, taking into account all the lost momentum from the 45 mph+ descents, and my decreased capacity to descend as the race wears on.
  • A 26 mph average  (average cadence a civil 125 rpm) would add 75 minutes.
  • A 28 mph average  (average cadence 135 rpm) would add 49 minutes.
  • A 30 mph average (average cadence 145 rpm) would add only 30 minutes. (but is doubtfully sustainable). 
 Seeing these numbers - I think it is worth it to limit my speeds early on (note that over 100 of those 130 miles comes in the first 220 miles of the race!). Although it is frustrating to lose time on descents, the 45 minutes gained by the significant effort increase from 125 --> 145 cadence would likely be more than made up for by the decreased leg, and cardio stress of the lower cadences.

It will be important not to overestimate the time gained by fast descents - or underestimate the toll fast descents will take on my body. All the time I spent over 26 mph during the whole 508 was less than the time it took to travel the 44 miles from Furance Creek to Ashford Mill, during the hellish windstorm in Death Valley!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Mt. Laguna Bicycle Classic - Fixed Gear Report - 4/17/2010

I was going to have a low-key weekend. It was two weeks after my successful, but very taxing Davis 24 Hour Challenge. I had thought I was recovered the previous weekend - but riding my worst Fiesta Island TT to date convinced me otherwise. So I was thinking of a week of light training and a couple longer rides on the weekend. Then I got a mail from Chris Kostman / AdventureCORPS with a reminder  that it was the last day to register for their Mt Laguna century ride. I hadn't signed up for a century ride for years, as this is a typical training distance for me, and so the significance of such rides isn't usually enough to be worth the hassle and expense. But I have a stupid goal of doing both the Death Ride and the the 508 on my fixed gear this year, and I know I need to push my limits on the bike. So I signed up for the Laguna ride, thinking it would be a good way to force myself to go out and get a punishing fixie workout, while getting to ride in some of my favorite terrain. It was also a way to find out what my limits were on the fixed gear - in March I had a rough time at the Death Valley Double - but for general issues mostly unrelated to me doing it on the fixie.

I woke up at the ungodly hour of 4 am, threw my bike and gear in the car, and headed out toward Pine Valley, a small town in the shadow of Mt Laguna, 50 miles east of San Diego.  An hour later I arrived at the already bustling Pine Valley Park, regged in temperatures in the upper 30s, and kitted up. I rolled over to the start in time for the greeting by Bill Walton (basketball legend and now, cyclist!) and some words from Chris. We were off at 6 am. I had some words with George "Red Eye Vireo" Vargas and Ton "Desert Fox" van Daelen, the only riders I knew, but it was quickly down to business, as we headed up highway 79 at a decent pace.

This would be the most gentle climb of the day, gradually gaining in elevation from a low of 3500 to 6000 feet, with interspersed flats and descents. It was a gorgeous, but frigid, morning as we made our way north, passing through green meadows and boulder-strewn mountain sides. My numbed hands and toes eventually gained feeling back as the sun rose over our small group, which had been quickly whittled down to about six. I felt good today, as I had for the past month; my strides at improving my everyday nutrition seemed to be working wonders on the heart rate issues that have plagued me in the past (even as recently as the Death Valley Double).

There were a fair amount of shorter steep pitches, but I was able to stand up and maintain my momentum, muscling the gear (46x16) to the top of the grade without too much difficulty. But it was on one such hill that I heard a pop and my rear wheel skip for a second. At first I thought it was just my chain, threatening to hop off from the torque. But then I noticed later on the descent that my bike felt a bit squirrely and hard to control. I just chalked it up to my imagination and kept riding.

We pacelined through more open grassland as we gained in elevation. Actually, it seemed like very little rotation was going on. As opposed to the Death Valley Double, where I did a fair amount of the pacemaking, I hung out near the back this time, seeing no reason to over expend myself early. I knew the climbing would start again soon in any case. And it did - as we hit Sunrise Highway.

The Road to Laguna.(Photo from AdventureCORPS)

The stretch of road that lay between us and Mt Laguna is one of my favorites, and certainly some of the best riding within reach of San Diego. The road skirts a ridgeline among pine trees, chapparal and grassy slopes, with expansive views of green, rounded mountains to the west, and to the east, a precipitous drop of over 5,000 feet to barren desert and dramatic rocky peaks. I pushed harder, reveling in my surroundings. The Sunrise Highway closely parallels the PCT along this section, and riding this road always brings back fond memories of my PCT hike from Warner Springs to the Mexico border. But I was going much faster now, and landmarks that were a day apart then were now separated by an hour.

I was now climbing off the front of our group at this point, but maintaining a comfortable pace, well within my limits. My 10 minute high on this section was 340, with an average HR of 173, which was worlds apart from my performance in Death Valley, where I tried starting at the same pace (340 for 5 minutes) but this sent my heart rate well above 190, and my form only worsened from there.  But most of all I was surprised that I was able to comfortably hold around 35 on the descents, at a cadence of over 150.  Having learned my lesson from the painful descents of the DVD, I had swapped the bargain saddle my fixie came with for my saddle of choice (Specialized Toupe) and lowered the seat. It made a world of difference. No longer was I bouncing, on the verge of control, but I was able to maintain a smooth cadence, and remain comfortable at fairly high speeds. My cornering was still suspect though, a quick glance back, and the pronounced wobble on each rotation confirmed what I had been hoping wasn't the case: I had broken a spoke.

I didn't want to deal with it at this point unless it was absolutely necessary. In rides like this, especially when you’re enjoying the day, and in good form,  the urgency to keep going can overshadow common sense. Clearly, I was going to have to deal with my wheel sooner or later, and it was only going to get more and more out of true. But no, I felt good, I kept going. My bike would just fix itself, right?

As I approached the ridge, the grades eased and I did as well, finishing the last 7 miles of climbing at around 300W NP, my heart rate a manageable 164 bpm. Near the Laguna checkpoint, two riders from the group caught up to me, and we rolled in, got our numbers marked, and rolled out. 2 hours in, 35 miles down, 282 NP, 160 average HR, 3700 ft of climbing. Not a bad start to the morning!

As we headed down Sunrise Highway, I knew what was ahead: 14 miles, and 3,000 ft of descent that would bring us to the base of the legendary Kitchen Creek climb. My companions quickly dropped me, even with my newfound fixie descending skills, as my 150 rpm spin was no match for a tuck and a freehub. I bid them well as I headed down the slopes at my own pace, happy that at least I was (relatively) comfortable, and in control. Except for my unraveling rear wheel, that is... But no matter how much better I had it, it still is much  harder to recover when your legs are being flung around 2 and a half times a second. Interestingly enough, my HR tracked very closely with my cadence for the descent: with my cadence and my HR both in the 140s for the 20+ minute descent – as if my heart gave up and just let my legs do the circulating for it.

A few miles and some rollers after the descent bottoms out comes the left turn to Kitchen Creek Road. This is an awesome climb - not the least of which is the 4 mile section closed to cars - creating a bike path turned up the side of a mountain - dropping you off into the forest on top of Laguna. The climb also plays the centerpiece in one of my favorite epic solo training rides (course like this). Typically by the time I reach this climb, I'm many miles into a ride, and I'm fatigued, making the climb a difficult slog (but enjoyable nonetheless). This time, I was 50 miles in, but felt great. One little problem. My wheel was now undoubtedly rubbing, badly, on each rotation. I couldn't put this off any longer. I saw my two companions just up ahead, but I had to stop.

I jumped off the bike right before Kitchen Creek kicks up in earnest, dug a spoke wrench out of my bag, and got to work. Thankfully, I was paranoid enough about my wheel-building skills, and the high torque that comes with fixed gear riding, that I had carried a spoke wrench. I found the offending spoke, bent it around some others, and got to adjusting the spokes around the area. In my haste I rounded off one of the spokes. Then I made a series of adjustments the wrong way. The wheel was getting worse. I finally got a handle on it, and the wheel finally spun well within the brake pads all the way around. It had taken 8 minutes. 2 more groups had passed me.

Time to get back to work. The road hovers between 8 and 12% for the next mile and change, and my legs immediately protested. The crest of the section was always in sight, but it came oh so slowly, as I methodically worked each leg cadence falling to one revolution per 2 seconds as I reached the top of the section. Following was a welcome descent, followed by a more humane approach for the next few miles to the base of the closed road section.

A checkpoint was set up where the road turns to a bike path, and I got my number marked as I passed through. I thought of the hot summer day a few years back when I stopped at that spot for some shade from the brutal sun, dehydrated and in bad shape, with 100 miles left to ride home. Later that day I would need to get IV fluid replacement for severe dehydration ... but not this time, it was gorgeous, in the 70s, and I was feeling good.

From this point on the Kitchen Creek "Bike Path" cuts its way through desert scrub, winding through valleys and over ridges at gentle 5% grades. I was able to keep a good rhythm, and remain seated most of the time, pedaling reasonably smooth circles at a cadence approaching 50, power around 275W, HR pegged at a 165. The climb has a few intermediate descents as it crests ridges on the way to Laguna, and passing the gate on the north end of the car-free section, the route rolls meanderingly upward under tree-cover. Over an hour after the climbing begun, finally I reached the Sunrise Highway, with a few miles left to again visit the Mt Laguna high point. I took a glance back at my 31-spoked wheel, which seemed to be holding up quite well after the roadside repair. I pulled in to the checkpoint, got marked once again, topped off my bottles, one with Heed, one with Perpetuem, and headed down Sunrise Highway for the second time on the day.

The descent was enjoyable and quick, even without the blessing of the freehub. The pavement is smooth, the turns are generous and nontechnical, and the traffic was surprisingly light. I was comfortable enough to fully enjoy the westward views of the East County mountains. I descended a bit slower this time, as my mind was on the upcoming climb up Pine Creek, and my legs were being given little chance to recover.

I stopped by the Pine Valley Park to get marked for my final loop, with less than 30 miles to the finish. The route materials claimed of grades of 20% in places. I have to admit, I was skeptical. Exaggerated accounts of grades abound, and I figured that sure, maybe the inside of a few switchbacks might reach that – but the overall stats (2000 feet in 7 miles, or just around 5%) were more telling. I was wrong.

 The road starts out innocently enough, a cozy one lane, following the Pine Creek past serene mountain homes and trailheads, but then continues, diving into a rabbit hole of pain - a reality tilted upwards. It was a few miles before the real grades started. But they did. 

I've found the biggest difficulty of the fixed gear is the massive amount of torque you are forced to supply on steep climbs. On a geared road bike, you have a good amount of control on your cadence.  *MATH ALERT * Power = cadence * torque, and on a standard road bike, you have a good amount of control on your cadence : a standard road span of 53/39, 11/26, gives you the ability to change your cadence by over a factor of 3. This ability is of course lost on a fixed gear. On a hill, the grade determines your speed given a power output, because nearly all of your effort goes to overcoming gravity. This means that the grade actually dictates the torque you must apply to keep moving up it. So no matter how slow you go, you still must apply the same torque, which provides the same strain on your legs. A grade of 10% requires a constant torque of more than the max torque of a full out sprint effort for me (as a former track/crit racer!). But these weren’t 10% grades, these were 20% for extended periods. Compared to my standard road gearing,  the 20% grades became 40%. Compared to a triple, almost 60%. My ambitions of surviving up this climb in the pedals was about to be crushed.
I passed by a rider inching up the climb, then a mountain biker spinning at 100 rpm up 15%. I had enough in me to pass them and get out of their sight. But not much more.  On one of the nastiest stretches I had come to yet, a large pickup was headed down the road. There wasn’t enough room for both, and I relented to my screaming legs and pulled over to let him through. That was it. There was no way I’d be able to do a standing start in the middle of the grade I was now on.  I accepted my failure.  I started walking briskly and awkwardly up the slope, my cleats slipping on the steep pavement, looking for a place to remount. There was a small flat spot about a fifth of a mile up the road, and I gave it another shot. I made it a short distance, but was starting to realize this was going to be hopeless. Another quick walk and another attempt at getting on.  As I tried wrestling the right crank up, my cleat popped out and I almost was catapulted over the bars. Uh oh. I’ve never in my cycling career needed cleat clovers, so I hadn’t thought to bring them.  But now I had destroyed my right Look cleat in just a few minutes of walking. Without being able to clip my right shoe there was no way I could make up these grades: at cadences of 20-30, you need every muscle active at all times. I walked more, for some reason not taking off my shoes. This was going to be a long climb. 
Occasionally I had opportunities to hop back on the bike for a little while, being very careful to plant my cleat in the pedal and not pull up throughout the stroke. I still got almost thrown off a few times – the pedal stroke is an engrained movement that is very hard to change on the fly.  There was a water stop in the middle of the climb, and the volunteers kindly only took my picture for the brief time I was able to ride in that section. But again the grade shot up, and this time I took off my shoes, and hoofed it up the hill in socks. Even on foot my heart rate was in the 170s at 3-4 mph. This was quite a hill.  It was over a half hour from the bottom before I would finally emerge onto the tame upper slopes of Pine Creek Rd. Surprisingly only one rider (George) would pass me on this stretch, as I was putting my shoes back on on the top of the ridge. At this point the road dove down off the ridge, in tight steep switchbacks, and then leapt up toward again toward the summit. It wasn't over yet, and I again had to dismount. I had hoped to catch back up and ride in with him, but realized I had to take the rest of the ride very gingerly: it would take some care not to get flung from my bike because of my unattached right shoe. 

Surviving the Pine Creek Climb.

Finally, I rounded a corner and with great relief saw the right turn onto the Sunrise Highway, meaning only some rolling hills to the final summit of the ride, and a smooth descent from there to the finish. Of course now, a descent was not just an enjoyable freebie. In addition to not being able to coast, now I was only able to clip in with one foot. I hobbled the remaining miles to the rest stop, only having my right leg thrown from the pedals a few times. I grabbed some ice water, and headed out on my way to Pine Valley. The 10 mile descent would take not much more than about 15 minutes on a standard bike, and I had done it in 20 minutes the last two times, but I knew this time would be more like 30.  I thought of all the bad things that could happen with me getting my right leg thrown was I going to do this?  I experimented with holding my right leg out of the pedal’s way, but this was very uncomfortable and harder to balance. I found that I was marginally comfortable with just maintaining downward pressure on the pedal all the way around the stroke, and riding my brakes to keep it around 25 (cadence in the 120s). No longer could I let the pedals jerk my legs around – I needed to go through the full motion this time, a crash course in pedaling circles. Joyous riders zoomed past at almost double my speed, probably wondering what on earth I was doing.  I made slow, steady progress down the hill, and following the cliched but useful ultra-event mantra : "all things (headwinds, ascents, sketchy broken cleat-ed fixed gear descents..) will come to an end" it finally bottomed out. Not thinking, I sped past the entrance to the park, only realizing later that I was following another rider headed toward the Pine Creek loop... not again thanks… I turned around, and a few minutes later, my bonus miles complete, I at long last pulled in to finish at Pine Valley Park.

It was a full 6 hours and 26 minutes: 6 hours of riding, 15 minutes of walking, 8 minutes of wheel repair, 2 minutes of stopped time, 27,012 pedal rotations, and 3 summits of Laguna with over 10,000 ft of climbing. Yet still it went by fast. I was done with riding, and it was only lunchtime! It had been a while since I finished an event ride without feeling completely wasted. The course is still about as challenging as you can get for a 100 miler, while keeping a good balance, and the terrain is undeniably awesome for riding. The loop format works out quite well; the descent of Sunrise Highway anchoring each loop was enjoyable, and didn't feel repetitive. There is still great variety in the terrain, and I doubt anyone would complain about being bored. I liked that the loops increase in difficulty, and that the ride ends with a bang - even though it turned out I couldn't handle it on my particular bike choice. This also could add an extra challenge to riders who are just pushing their endurance to century rides - most rides are organized for an easier last half. Not this one!

I did this to get a better feel for my current capabilities on the fixed. Well what did I learn?
  • My fixed gear ascending and descending is coming along nicely.
  • Fixed gear climbing wears you out faster due to torque requirements - this is primarily an issue with grades > 6%
  • I have a limit on the fixed - and Pine Creek Rd far exceeds that. I need to ride the climb again on my road bike, but it is definitely one of the hardest climbs I have ever done, maybe the hardest for its vertical gain. And I've done a lot of climbs.
  • I have yet to find a good excuse to back out of the Death Ride fixed or 508 fixed. 
  • Carry cleat covers (maybe running shoes for the 508) or use mountain bike shoes if attempting to do such antics again.

Power Data

The ride is pretty much all climbing or descent. I stayed strong and consistent for the first two climbs.
The Cuyamaca climb section was 2 hours at 282 NP / 160 HR
The Kitchen Creek climb section was 1 hour 30 min at 276 / 164 HR
The data from the Pine Creek climb is more or less useless because of how much walking I did!

79/Sunrise Highway Climb Stats

 Kitchen Creek Climb Stats 

Pine Creek Climb Stats
One thing to notice is how much work I had to put out even to keep walking on these grades - my heart rate was the higher in this walking section than either of the other climbs. Once I finally got to the mild grades of the Sunrise Highway, my legs were near shot, and my power fallen for the same HR : 203 NP with 165. I will have to be careful of such efforts on the DR or the 508, although there are no 20% grades on those rides!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Death Valley Double Fixed Gear - Ride Report - 3/6/2010

Before the Ride

My solid 4 hour (over)-training ride now complete, I drove down from Towne pass and headed toward Furnace Creek. I walked out onto the sand dunes by Stovepipe Wells, sat down on top of a tall dune, stretched, and relaxed. My heart rate was still elevated from my earlier effort, but the stark beauty of Death Valley was calming.

Once in Furnace Creek, I checked in at the Ranch, then set myself up in a campground (really a big parking lot with RV hookups) across from the Furnace Creek Ranch. I had last been through Furnace Creek at 3 in the morning during the 508, in the middle of a brutal windstorm, trying to claw myself back into the race. It was decidedly more calm this time around, and the weather reports were now looking better than they had all week, with only a small chance of rain.

I worked on my bike for the morning. Checked the chain tension (finally starting to get a feel for the “art”), made sure the tires were good, bottles ready with fuel, clothes set out. The next day would be my first double century on the fixed gear. In fact, it would also be my second and third centuries on the fixie! I still felt more or less confident in my ability on the bike, and wasn’t too worried, given that the Death Valley Double is among the easiest doubles on the calendar. The climb out of Death Valley over and Jubilee Pass and Salsbury Pass is long, but never too steep, and the climbing is basically complete after mile 80. Seemed like all I would have to do was hang on until that point, and it would be a cruise. 

I tried to get to bed early, curling up in the back of my VW Passat wagon. I didn’t sleep well. I never got comfortable, and I noticed I felt more tired than I would have expected from my effort that day. I was trying to drink water, but it wasn’t enough to hydrate me in the dry Death Valley air.

Furnace Creek to Ashford Mill
I finally woke up around 5 and headed across the road to the start at the Ranch. It always seems to take longer to prepare than you plan for – and I managed to barely make it to the 6 am start. A few words from Chris Kostman of AdventureCorps and we were off. I always love the beginning of long rides. It was a pleasant morning, and we had a faint wind at our backs as we headed south. I talked a bit with George “Red Eyed Vireo” Vargas – who himself has done the 508 on a fixed gear (the 7th, and last successful, finisher). It was probably his account that planted the idea in my subconscious ... long before I was even sure whether I would attempt the 508 solo at all. Graham “Python” Pollock and Ton “Desert Fox” van Daelen were also in the group. I’m not the only 508 veteran to whom Death Valley holds a special importance. 
I often find myself a bit frustrated with the beginnings of doubles, as very few people ever want to work. I ended up taking some long pulls myself, hoping other people would start rotating. It would be many miles before we finally did get a semblance of organization going. Many of the riders still aren’t comfortable with, don’t know, or don’t care, that it’s most efficient to maintain a quickly rotating paceline. But in my impatience to get things moving, I wasn’t paying attention to my body. Judging by my power numbers, I was just fine, and not overextending. But my heart rate was far too high, and something just felt off about my form. I was pulling too long and too hard given my form, and even this early in the ride, it was starting to catch up to me.
We pulled into Ashford Mills after about 2 hours of riding. I thought then about the comparison of the same section on the 508, where I thought it must have taken about twice the time to travel that distance. It did:

Furnace Creek to Ashford Mill - 2009 508
4:03, NP 211, Avg Power 206, HR 139, Avg Speed 11 mph

Furnace Creek to Ashford Mill, 2010 DVD
2:06, NP 239, Avg Power 211, HR 157, Avg Speed 21.2

The first thing to note here is that an average power of 206W during the windstorm of 2009's 508 was good for only 11 mph (over 4 hours!) on this section. On the DVD, in a group, with calm conditions, the slightly higher average power of 211 W (239 normalized because of some spirited pulls) yielded 21.2 mph (just over 2 hours). There couldn't be a starker example of the effects of air resistance.

The other crucial thing here is my body's response. On the 508, I had recovered from my early difficulties, and was in "endurance mode" where I'm able to churn out consistent, mid-range power, with low heart rate, for very long periods of time. So I averaged 133 bpm on this section for the 508, indicating a very sustainable pace. My body on this morning seemed to be revolting, however, and my moderate effort over these first two hours had my heart rate up to 157 average, with spikes up to 189 (!) which, while somewhat sustainable, hinted that something was wrong. Heart rates this high can compromise digestion, and the fact that I was this stressed early on in the ride did not bode well for the remaining 150 miles.

Ashford Mill to Shoshone and Back

Our group had been whittled down to about 6 at this point. A few of them grabbed water from the stop and jumped off before I could refill my bottles. 5 of us were back together after some chasing
, as the road tipped up toward Jubilee Pass. I didn't know quite how to take this climb on the fixed gear, but even at the tame 4-5% grades of the climb, I felt uncomfortable at that low cadence. So I took off. I upped the pace to what would normally be a sub-threshold climbing pace, of about 340w, for the next 5 minutes, but it was clear that I could not keep this up. My HR had shot up to 190 as I hit a flat spot in the climb. I had a sizable gap at this point, but I knew I needed to back off. As I continued up Jubilee, my power kept falling.. 320, 315, 310, but my heart rate kept rising...180, 185, 190.. I was alternating sitting down and standing up, muscling the cranks sloppily, at a forced cadence in the 40s. Phil Kelly caught up to me midway on this stretch, and I could tell he was having no difficulties at this pace. I would expect to feel the same, but was undeniably deep in the pain cave.

I crested the pass with Phil, but he quickly dropped me on the mile-long descent leading to the base of the Salsbury Pass climb. My aching legs were unable to keep a cadence higher than about 120 down the grade, good for only around 28 mph, on what is a 40+mph coasting descent. As the climb resumed, I went from struggling to keep my legs spinning at 120 rpm to wrestling the cranks to keep turning at 40 rpm. This would be a long 9 miles of climbing ahead.

In times of difficulty on the bike, I tend to focus intently on countdowns: feet left to climb, miles to go, time left at this pace. But of course, your mileage ticks ever so slowly when you watch it. I was in survival mode now. Never had I been in this much distress so early in a ride. I tried to put it all out of my mind - concentrate on breathing smoothly, relax your body, even out your pedal stroke.

Nearing a half hour into the climb I finally found some sort of equilibrium at 240W, with my HR hanging at my threshold of 180. This was around 2/3rds the power I would expect at this level of exertion, but I had to take what I could get. I came up on a water stop, halfway up the climb, that I stopped at to get some fresh water. I didn't need it. My fatigued body was just looking for any excuse to stop for a minute. George Vargas passed me at this point, and I was jealous of the effortless cadence he was producing.

Suffering, while Red Eyed Vireo calmly zips up his jersey. Midway up Salsbury Pass.

I got back on the bike after a glorious 45 seconds of no pedaling at the water stop. My legs immediately resumed their complaints. The demands of the high torque required by my gear were accumulating, and for the next 15 minutes, I could only muster 220W, which of course, means that my cadence was even slower, dipping into the low 30s at spots. As I neared the top I was able to push a bit harder, finally reaching 2 miles to go, 1, half a mile to go, then the always wonderful view of a downturn in the road ahead, and the little green rectangular sign marking the summit of the road.

The climbs out of Death Valley during the 508. Easy endurance pace at ~200 watts, HR kept quite low at avg 139 bpm.

The same climb during the DVD - I struggled, averaging 260W (NP 274), but HR averaging 180 for almost an hour an a half. All saving only 13 min versus the 508. Notice the consistently dropping power throughout the climb.

I took a deep breath. The last time I had descended this road it was a joyous, 45 mph freefall, with wide open desolate desert valleys spreading out before me as I rocketed eastward, rewarding me for making it through Death Valley. This time it was no reward. My legs were being jerked around. My butt hurt. I was bouncing around on the too-soft, cheapo saddle that I should have replaced after buying the bike. What was I doing this for? Oh yeah... the "accomplishment." Great.

As I pulled into the checkpoint in the small town of Shoshone, Graham was just heading out. I filled my water bottles with Heed and Perpetuem, spun my wheel to see if I had torqued it out of true (nope, it was ok..) stretched out my aching legs, and returned on the road back to Death Valley.

I was sore. There was a long way to go. I especially wasn't looking forward to the climb back up to the pass, which was steeper (but shorter) in this direction. I kept Graham in sight, and he provided great motivation for me to hold a decent pace. I was feeling ok, but my stomach was a bit unsettled. My flagging energy levels warned me that my calories weren't processing as they should. But I had to keep pressing on. I concentrated on just pushing the pedals through. I stared down at the slowly moving pavement. I looked at all the riders who were coming down the descent, headed toward Shoshone, coasting happily toward the checkpoint.

Graham's figure up the road was shrinking a bit. I tried pushing harder on the pedals. They resisted. As I approached the summit, I felt the beginnings of a bonk, and the road kicked up steeper. I had been averaging about 240 w, with a calmer HR of 168, but my legs were screaming for a shorter gear. My cadence dropped to 30, and I shamefully unclipped and draped myself over the handlebars. I knew I was close to the summit, I needed to get on. But it was too tempting to stop. I gave myself one minute. Back on the bike. I knew I was in trouble: I only have to fight the urge to stop on a climb when my body is on the verge of shutting down. This was bad. I did my best to ignore the sign. What could I do now, anyway? I battled the rest of the half mile up to the summit. Riders were happily taking pictures of each other by the Salsbury Pass sign, as I struggled silently past. I was happy to reach the summit, but I was not looking forward to the 14 miles of descent that lay between me and the valley floor.

My descent was ugly. Jerky. Painful. My hands were half numb as I maintained a death grip on the brakes. My feet were dragging my legs, against their will, in fast circles that they flailingly tried to mimic. My saddle was putting pressure in all the wrong places, as I bounced on it haplessly. Sure, it seemed like a great idea at the time to change as little as possible about the bike, which I bought for only $249. So I didn't swap out the big cushy saddle it came with. It was the whole idea of simplicity, of doing an epic ride on the simplest, cheapest of equipment. Major mistake. This wasn't like foregoing the slight performance advantage of aero wheels or a lighter frame. A properly fitting saddle is a basic bike-fit essential. I was barely topping 26, but it still felt like I was hurdling down the mountain on the edge of control.

20 minutes of this torture later, and I had to make the brief, sharp climb up to Jubilee Pass, and the quick transition from too fast cadence to too slow cadence was jarring. I barely kept the bike upright on the last kicker of well over 10%, at 5 mph, and then made my way painfully down the remaining 5 mile descent to Ashford Mill.

Ashford Mill to Furnace Creek

I pulled into the rest stop, parked my bike, and filled my bottles. There were many other century riders at this point, their turnaround was just up the road at the top of Jubilee. They were relaxed, enjoying the beautiful day. I was a world apart from them. I felt like a zombie. It was only mile 100, but I was toast. The remaining miles were all flat to rolling, so I figured I would be fine. But up until now I had given my body almost no rest - as the stress of the descents on the fixie did not offer any respite. I saddled up and made my way back north, toward Furnace Creek. I didn't make it far before I realized this was going to be tougher than I had been counting on. Everything after this point was supposed to be an easy spin. My exhausted legs, my near-bonked energy levels, the headwind, and the hills, which seemed much more brutal than I had remembered, all claimed otherwise. I once again stopped, dismounted, and sat on my top tube, staring down the road stretching endlessly beyond me.

OK. Now what was I going to do. I sipped my water bottle. I felt a little bloated. My stomach wasn't doing its job. Not good. I wasn't getting calories through, and was bonked. Groups of riders started whizzing past. I saw one of the six riders that had been in our group from the morning pass by, and he slowed, asked if I was ok, congratulating me (undeservedly!) for being on the fixie. I was completely worthless right now, but this gave me enough of a push to jump back on and catch him. The effort wore me out, but I hung out in his draft, and was able to recover a bit.

He ( I believe his name was Glenn) was riding with his wife, who was doing the century route. They were both on Storcks, completely tricked out with top-end weight weenie components. I asked him what his bike weighed, guessing 11 pounds. It was under 10, as he was riding it. His wife's was around 12. Ridiculous. It provided quite the contrast to the 25 pound monstrosity I was wrestling with currently. They were from Tahoe - and apparently this was their first ride of the year outside. Amazing. They offered to pull me back in to Furnace Creek. I graciously obliged. I took pulls when I could, but I was mostly sucking wheel, and watching the miles tick by painfully slowly. 44 long miles. This is psychologically taxing terrain. There is very little to mark your progress against, as the road rolls on relentlessly from one small hill to the next, traversing the east side of the valley.

We stopped at the Badwater rest stop for a good long while. I had given up "racing" way back on the slopes of Salsbury, so I was fine with sitting and relaxing at Badwater for a while. I was still hoping my stomach would start working again, but I still felt its contents sloshing around... threatening to come back up. Once you get situated at a rest stop, time passes very quickly...I ended up spending almost a full half hour there!

The remaining 17 miles back to Furnace Creek were slow, and I still spent most of them hiding in Glenn's draft. My heart rate had calmed down, but I was still nauseous and bloated. We averaged less than 16 on the return trip. Glenn was going to call it a day at FC, as his knee was hurting, and his wife's century ride ended at FC. I toyed with the idea of doing the same. No. Not an option.

Furnace Creek to Stovepipe Wells and Back.

I checked in at the Furnace Creek stop. It was late. Well over 9 hours had passed. Best case, I had imagined finishing in the low 10s. Not today! It was after 3. I had less than 3 hours to finish the remaining 50 miles before I would need lights. That should have been no problem, but I was weak, and it was windy. I rode over to my car, slumped in the seat, and closed my eyes. OK. Get lights. Get back on the road. Just a little bit of rest... I looked at the clock. 15 minutes had passed since I arrived. I needed to get moving. I grabbed the lights I had brought, not intending to use them. I tried flicking them on. They looked a little dim. Great. I needed to move.

I jumped back on my bike and started toiling toward Stovepipe Wells. I had spent over 30 minutes at Furnace Creek. Shouldn't have done that. When you're far enough gone, saving time seems to matter less and less, and when you're stopped, it seems to pass faster and faster. A few miles out from Furnace Creek, a good sized, well moving paceline caught me. Someone yelled "latch on!"

We were moving, over 20 mph, and I could muster brief pulls at the pace, although it hurt. Finally my legs were recovering a bit: we were now at speeds that my gear choice (46x16) is optimized for, as 21 mph gives 90 rpm. My power and speed were now settled in my ultra endurance range - which I think indicates my energy is coming almost entirely from fat burning. This is a NP of 180 or so, HR in the 130s. My stomach was still upset, but I think it was ok, as at this intensity, I depend very little on caloric intake. As long as I maintained reasonable levels of electrolytes and hydration, I'd make it. Still, I dreaded the approach of every hill, of which there are several sizable ones on the stretch, as I had barely any power above what we were averaging, and I had to struggle on the descents to stay with the group.
We saw the leading riders, on their way home, 2 hours ahead. I put my lackluster performance out of my mind, and concentrated on the road ahead.

After an interminable amount of time, I finally saw the Stovepipe Wells sand dunes in the distance, and continued to watch them as they neared. We arrived at Stovepipe Wells, and put on our lights. It was starting to get dark, and threatening clouds were moving in. 25 miles to go. More pacelining, more hills that I was scared of being dropped on (even though certainly no one was hammering them!), more eyeing the mileage left as it dropped ever so slowly. About half an hour left it was time for our lights. My woefully dim front light gave me excuse to hide in the draft for the rest of the ride, as the clouds ahead finally made good on their promise and sprinkled us with intermittent showers. It was all wrapped up now, and I finally could put on a bit of a good attitude. I was going to finish what I came to do: a fixed gear double century.

We finished with little fanfare, a challenging 2 hours and 45 minutes from when I set out from FC, over 12 and a half long hours from when I first departed FC that morning. I checked in, rolled to my car, and struggled to throw my bike in the back as the rain started in earnest. I was done. I had no stomach for the after-ride pizza that was being provided at the finish. As much as I liked the idea, it was far beyond my capability to eat anything. I needed to get back to the motel.

Stats for the first 85 miles, marking the end of the last climb to Salsbury Pass.
246 NP for 5:05, 164 HR
6800 ft of climbing this section

Stats for the last death march of a century. Over an hour off the bike!
Power output of 181 NP (indicating "endurance mode" - fat burning metabolism only)
5:25 moving, 94 miles
138 HR. 2100 ft of climbing.

Full ride, 11:16 rolling, (1:20 off the bike), 196 miles
NP 217, HR 150
8900 ft of climbing


I collapsed in the front seat, and started driving. I didn't feel well. I had over 100 miles to drive to Ridgecrest. All of a sudden, I really didn't feel well. I pulled to the side of the road, and threw up the sum of my liquid intake for the last many hours. Ugh. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and started driving again. Here I was, in the same place, about 3 hours later, heading toward Stovepipe Wells, counting the miles down yet again. Many doubles riders were still on the course. Many of them coming towards me had blindingly bright lights, more distracting than an oncoming motorist with the brights on. Riders should point their lights toward the road, it must be detrimental to safety to be shining lights that bright in driver's eyes. Finally I hit the base of the climb to Towne Pass. I had to stop and throw up again. This time I was empty, heaving in vain. I pressed on. I was about halfway up when I needed to stop again. I lay back and closed my eyes, thinking of the night 5 months ago, when I was also throwing up on Towne Pass. At least this time I didn't have to get out and ride 300 more miles. I slept for about an hour, and finally felt good enough to press on. It was a long 100 miles left to drive, tracing the 508 route backward, over Towne Pass, through the Panamint Valley, then Trona, over the mountains into Ridgecrest, Motel 6, and finally, I was able to surrender to a well deserved deep sleep.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Death Valley Double, Prelude - Towne Pass and Emigrant Pass

There's something special about Death Valley. There's a reason Chris Kostman of AdventureCorps chooses to hold almost all his events there. "Epic" is a favorite, albeit overused, description pervasive of ultra events - but Death Valley seems to fit the bill here. The desolation, vastness, towering peaks, extremes in weather, temperature, elevation, and otherworldly terrain set it apart. The Death Valley Double course is an out and back entirely along the route of the 508. Apart from a 3,000 foot climb out of Death Valley, and a 1400 foot climb back in (and their requisite descents), the terrain is all flat to rolling: perfect for fixed gear riding.

Death Valley is a long way from San Diego, so I headed up a day early - to get some riding in the day before (on my standard road bike), and hopefully stave off my high heart rate issue - I have found that I do not have difficulties due to overly high heart rate if I have done a hard ride before. I'm still not sure of the mechanism at work here - it could be that my electrolyte levels are evened out by the exercise - or the fatigue and recovery process suppresses the heart overactivity. In any case, it gave me an excuse to ride some awesome terrain on Friday - both sides of Towne Pass, and Emigrant pass, for 9300 ft of climbing in about 60 miles. I tried to climb steady, well within my capability, and target for endurance climbing at around 4 w/kg. I knew something was wrong pretty quickly, as my heart rate jetted past my target endurance threshold HR (165-170) immediately, and then shot into the 180s, beyond my 20k avg HR only a few minutes after that. I was in for a tough ride.

I was able to push on, my heart rate far too high, yet my perceived effort much lower, as I really was at what should be a very sustainable pace.

What surprised me most was the difficulty of the backside of Towne Pass. The frontside is well known as the most difficult climb in the 508 - yet the backside is certainly harder. I only started the climb from 2200 feet, which is at the junction with the road to Emigrant Pass, and it still is a 7.5 mile climb averaging 7%, with many steeper pitches. No wonder it's such a fast descent! As I was struggling up the climb, performing far worse than I would have liked, I thought of the masochists in the Badwater Ultramarathon - taking this climb on foot, in July, after already having spent the day travelling through Death Valley. Ridiculous. Someday...

The last climb up the frontside of Towne Pass was painful and the road was steeped in memories from last year's 508. By that point in the race, I was a cracked shell of myself, crawling up the mountain in over 2 hours, then spending 7 hours puking, and finally, recovering. This time was slightly less dramatic, and much faster, yet still my HR was insanely high (189!) and my power fell of quickly, averaging only 259. I could only hope that this would break my body in for the following day. It wasn't to be.

of fixies and the future

Finishing the 508 was an overwhelming experience – and I consider it the biggest accomplishment of my cycling “career” to date. But the completion of this major milestone left me in need of a new goal – I know that just finishing the 508 again will never be as meaningful as that first time. And so it is with cycling – ultra cycling in particular - as a sport of progression, it is an endless search for that elusive sense of accomplishment that comes with proving to yourself that you can do what once seemed impossible. Every time you expand your known abilities, you have to make it that much harder on yourself the next time. I’ve followed this journey from the first time I rode home from college on my cheap mountain bike (Santa Cruz to Fremont), through centuries, double centuries, USCF and collegiate racing, 24 hour TTs, then the 508. So what’s next?

I left myself plenty of room for improvement in the 508. Although I finished, I had serious issues, mostly stemming from the high heart rate issue that I first identified last year in some doubles. On some rides, particularly when I’m trying to taper, and am in a well-rested state, I will find myself with a much higher heart rate for a given power than I would normally have – and this eventually leads to serious stomach issues, which are disastrous for long endurance events. I have made some strides in the past six months in identifying and working on this issue – and have found it primarily seems to be due to nutrition and electrolyte levels in the weeks prior.

To move on with my ultracycling, I will certainly have to figure out this issue. I once took it for granted that I would be completely wrecked at the end of a double. I now realize that I shouldn’t be. That if everything is right, I will slow, and my power output will decrease, but I will not end nauseated, cramping, and limping it in. I’ve found that correct and consistent use of Hammer fuels (Perpetuem, Heed and Hammer Gel) and electrolyte replacements (Endurolytes) to be crucial components in proper fueling – but if my body is overloaded to the point where my stomach is not processing, things will turn south no matter the quality of my fuel.

My main concern now is understanding, and optimizing, my body’s response to extreme endurance events. I think that figuring this out is best done concentrating on my own performance, without concerning myself so much with competition until I feel I have full understanding of my sometimes catastrophic meltdowns. So I’ve come up with a new way to push my own boundaries while still finding out more about my own physiological responses to ultras – all the while giving myself a bit of an excuse to not worry about competing at the very top. I’ll do them fixed gear!

That was a long-winded bit of explanation, but many people would ask – why I would ever want to even attempt ultras on a fixie. Well, simply, it’s a way for me to better explore my own abilities, while still pushing my boundaries. Also, riding the fixed gear is a whole new experience – wonderful in its own way. It is truly a pure experience, where I find that I feel more of a connection with the terrain, and I must work for every mile. Much of the 508, especially the first day, is fast descent or tailwind propelled flats – even in the weakened state I was in for the first day of the 2009 508, I averaged over 23 mph for 150 miles. Without aero equipment, or the ability to go much over 30 mph, there would be no such “free ride.”

My first event of the year would be the Death Valley Double, which I would do on the fixie. So how did it go? Report to come!