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!


  1. Adam,

    Great job. I had considered doing the pre-ride on a fixed gear. I might someday but I won't even come close to your time. Holding 150 RPM cadence is pretty amazing and really useful on long descents. The 508 has plenty of long descents but as you tire going 150 RPM will not seem appealing.

    Congrats on your ride!

  2. Thanks George, nice ride yourself. I know how frustrating it is to have issues with cramps, even though you're doing everything right.

    150 will probably not only be unappealing but impossible by the latter stages. I can only imagine how fun the descents to Kelso and Amboy are... I'll try to consciously limit my speed on the faster descents early on to give myself some time to recover.

  3. Oooh, you’re such an inspiration. I love this blog!
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