Monday, May 16, 2011

Devil Mountain Double 2011

I have history with the Devil Mountain Double. In 2009, after dragging myself over the 50 miles of Hamilton and Sierra with debilitating, excruciating leg cramps, I quit at Sunol, and ended up taking a trip to the hospital. In 2005 and 2006, I did reasonably well, finishing in 14:19 and then 13:10, but still had major difficulties on the crux climbs of Hamilton and Sierra. I knew I could do better. This year I came into the ride well prepared with distance - including an extremely windy Death Valley Double on the tandem, 3 400Ks, and 2 600Ks in the preceding 2 months. These long rides were just the training I needed to address my weaknesses. Physically, they helped train my stomach to keep processing at higher intensities, and develop the leg muscle endurance required to put out a baseline of power over long periods. They also sharpened me mentally; a 200 mile ride is not nearly as imposing as it once was - and the major climbs and difficulties along the way are much easier to simply take in stride and tackle as the come.

The terrain is extremely difficult, but perfect for a double - scenic, predominantly remote, few traffic lights or stop signs. Fremont in the East Bay was where I cut my cycling teeth - so the prominent DMD landmarks - Diablo, Hamilton, Sierra Road, Calaveras, Palomares, I knew very well, having ridden them countless times. Stringing them all together in one massive ride has always held a special significance to me, from back when I first started considering attempting these “double centuries”, marvelling at the idea that anyone could even accomplish it.

So it was an easy decision to drive up this year and give it another shot. I had some lingering knee pain from the OC 600k and Temecula 600k at the beginning of April, but this seemed to be mostly healed. Regrettably, nearly all of my recent training had been on the weekends - but I had made the most of them with a series of long brevets. Bal Singh, a friend from the UCSD cycling team, burgeoning ultracyclist, and 2010 Rock Rabbit 508 crew member would be coming as well, taking on the DMD as his first double.

After a very windy drive from San Diego to my parent’s house in Fremont, and a runin with a massive tumbleweed on I-5, we had an afternoon spin to open up the legs and fine tune the bike setup, and an early bedtime.

4 AM wakeup. Grabbed some bananas, and some coffee, we threw our bikes on the car, and headed to San Ramon. We checked in and were back at the car with plenty of time until the 6 AM start. Tires inflated, chain lubed, brakes not rubbing. Numbers pinned, sunscreen applied. There was a quick deliberation about what to wear - it would be windy and maybe dip into the 30s on the summit of Diablo, but would quickly warm up for the rest of the day. So knee warmers were out. Thin long fingered glove liners and arm warmers would be my only extras. A few minutes of cold was well worth not having to lug around extra clothing all day. There was time left for another trip to the bathroom, and then the start area.

The ride director Scott had us take a moment of silence to honor Jim Swarzman, who was killed in the Temecula 600k I had ridden just 3 weeks prior, and Tom Parkes, who had a heart attack on the backside of Hamilton on the 2010 DMD. I had been thinking about Jim quite a bit since the event - Jim’s death was such a terrible and senseless blow; the community lost a great man and cyclist. I had passed through on the same road just a few hours before. It was a sobering reminder of the dangers of our sport, and the need for everyone to be vigilant in the furtherance of cyclist’s rights, and to ride as safely as possible. It was a meaningful and somber moment.

Soon after we were off toward Mt. Diablo into the blustery early morning, at a slower pace than usual. There was a large (230+ rider), strong field, including Marc Moons and Robert Choi, who have been duking out the stage race in recent years, and Nathan Parks, a strong Cat 1 road racer, who along with Kevin Metcalfe had dropped me mercilessly as I struggled up the backside of Hamilton in ‘06. Also in the field were three fellow 2010 Hoodoo Voyagers: Rick Jacobson, Chris O’Keefe, and Russell Stevens, and some 508 veterans.

After the leisurely spin to the base of Diablo, I moved to the front so I could pick my way through the awful potholed road at the base, and we were soon headed up the slopes of the first 10 mi, 3,000 foot climb. Some riders surged ahead, but the pace predictably soon slowed to the tempo we would hold for the remainder of the climb, and I made myself comfortable near the front. It was a gorgeous morning as we gained altitude, with increasingly expansive views of the East Bay, clear blue sky, and a cool, gusting wind. I began to worry a bit about my wheel choice - I had a deep 808 on the front and a 404 on back, a reverse 606 (which I dubbed..the 606..) which people typically wouldn’t ride because of high side force on the front wheel. In clinchers, they were also fairly heavy, but I still thought it was a better idea than the few riders I saw pressing their luck with tubies. The wind grabbed and tugged at my wheels on the exposed sections, but it was manageable. I talked some with Curtis and Rick about the Hoodoo, the 508, Jim, but the climb was largely focused and silent. Before too long we were attacking the last ramp to the summit. Those of us in the front yelled our numbers to the staffers, pulled a U and headed down the mountain. We had climbed Diablo in a near identical pace to ‘09, a hair over an hour from the Athenian School, at a little under 4 W/kg. I felt good throughout the climb. The ride was looking good.

I had worried about being cold on the descent, and apparently it was indeed in the 30s at the top, but I didn’t notice that as I sped down the upper switchbacks. I realized I had not descended in windy conditions with these wheels, and I was having a hard time taking aggressive lines on the tight switchbacks. I could tell I was going slow. Bal passed me, and quickly gained, latching on to Marc ahead. Nathan passed me later on, along with a few others. I felt sluggish on the descent, but saw no reason to push my speed, knowing I would catch on by the bottom.

Sure enough, due to required slowdowns to pass 5 am riders also on the way down, the group came together before the bottom, and in a large group of maybe 15 or 20 we rolled through the streets of Walnut Creek and Clayton. It was a pleasant trip to the base of the next climb. The surrounding hills, verdant and lush from the recent rains, were framed in a warm glow from the morning sun as we rolled through. We hit mostly green lights for an easy trip to the right turn that marked the start of the stair stepped, rough road climb of Morgan Territories.

A Capo-kit clad rider had jumped to the front earlier to set pace. I didn’t catch his name, and only heard him mention that he was headed only to the next rest stop, and that he’d like to get a good workout in. No one objected to his pace-setting up front, and so we made our way over the shoulder of Diablo on the pothole strewn, narrow, tree-sheltered Morgan Territory Road. In ‘09 we had attacked the climb, shelling riders and wasting energy with an uneven pace. Having our buddy out front keeping us civil and sane slowed us down a few minutes, but saved some energy and stress on the body for the many taxing climbs ahead. We passed by the bulk of the 5 AM riders on this section, most wondering aloud cheerfully “Oh, is it the 6AM group? Hi!”
The road breaks through the forest onto a grassy hillside in a final series of steep ramps, and we hooked left into a dirt parking lot for the rest stop. I rolled in at the front of the pack, filled my bottles, grabbed some PB+J squares and fruit amidst the throng of riders, and headed back to the road. I saw Robert Choi just coming in, and began spinning toward the upcoming fast descent as I waited for the rest of our group. Nathan came, then Bal, and Marc. We started down the steep, fast descent known as “The Plunge” toward Livermore, 1500 feet below.

The winds were swirling and gusting, pushing at my deep wheels and threatening to throw my bike, and there were occasional cars and slower riders, so I took the narrow, corkscrewing, exposed descent cautiously. I found out later that a rider crashed on the descent and had to be taken to the hospital. No need to take such risks. Bal, Marc and Nathan passed me again on the descent; but I was just not feeling confident handling my deep wheels any faster. Bruno and Max Mehech, a father and son pair, attempted passing me somewhat recklessly on a curve, while I was slowing for a rider ahead. As I watched them pull away, I thought back to the reasons I quit USCF racing - I don’t like those kind of risks or challenges. At least I wasn’t descending this in a road race - so there was no reason to push my luck. I still managed to average near 35 mph for the 5 mile section, and caught quickly back on to the small group in the flat runoff.

It was then a small group of us, Bal, Nathan, Marc, Max, Bruno, and I, and we formed a rotating paceline to try to shelter ourselves from the strong head and cross winds on the way to the Altamont. As we battled our way eastward with quick short pulls, I’m sure none of us were wondering why the hilly landscape is so liberally peppered with windmills. In this section we were joined by Curtis from behind, and caught up to Alan, who had blown through the Morgan rest stop. At one point we joined the course of the Wente Road Race, being held simultaneously, but only came across a few stragglers, no pelotons. The wind was certainly more painful for the racers than for us. We also came across some groups of 5 AM riders, who made some valiant efforts to integrate to our paceline.

Before long the route turned back westward, the steep 1,000 ft Patterson Pass climb between us and the stop at the base of Mines Road. What had been a raging headwind in past years up the climb seemed to be a gentle tailwind on this morning, making the climb much more pleasant. The previous day Bal and I had driven the road at rush hour, and it was a harrowing death trap - a 1.5 lane commuting corridor with trucks barreling through at 60+ mph, with little regard for the oncoming traffic. It was a completely different story on this Saturday morning: an empty road and a cyclist’s paradise, with nothing to contend with but other riders and Patterson’s steep, inconsistent grades. I had been eating consistently, drinking well, and my stomach seemed to be handling the calories without complaint. But my legs had been feeling slightly dead all day. I wondered if I was coming down with something, whether I had some other serious issue brewing, or whether I was just being overly vigilant and worrying too much. The moderate pace we had settled on was working well for me. There was an intermediate water stop at the bottom of the last pitch, dubbed the “Oh-my-God Hill” - that Nathan, Bal, and Marc had stopped at. I was ok on water, and decided to simply spin easy up the climb, taking the extra few seconds for some active recovery. It was nice being able to ease up the climb at a leisurely pace, although you can only go so easy up 15%! Marc and Alan soon joined me. By the top of the climb our small crew had reassembled, minus the the son Bruno, who had earlier been complaining about the pace and had begun to have cramping issues.

Then came a fast descent and some easy flat miles to Mines, where I restocked on water, some soda, PB+J, and a few bananas. We were all in and out quickly. Mines Road begins with a long climb followed by a gradual upstream saunter through the remote valleys of the Hamilton Range, leading eventually in some 40 miles and 2500 vertical feet to the bottom of the brutal climb to the Hamilton summit. On my past DMD efforts, this was always where I began to unwind. The heat picks up here, and now with about 6 hours in the legs, the body begins to rebel against any lapse. Unsustainable pace, poor nutrition or hydration, insufficient training. This road seems to tear at any weakness, ripping it wide open.
We kept a civil pace up the main Mines Road climb. My knee was starting to hurt, but I focused on smoothing out my pedal stroke and it was manageable. We passed Steve Smead, who was toiling up the road on his fixie. His gear was somewhat lower than what I used for the 508, but these climbs were steep, the descents long, and needless to say I was not jealous of his equipment. Although I may someday want to try DMD fixed, I was quite happy at the time with my freehub and 39-27.

We passed mile 100 with a little less than 6 hours in the saddle, and the main climbing over, took to the false flats leading to the Junction at a good clip. The area’s unique ecology and climate is a haven for birders, who were perched on the side of the road in safari vests, cameras and binoculars at the ready. My legs weren’t feeling great, and I kept my pulls measured and even. Bal was starting to drag here and began to gatekeep. I finished a pull, looked back and merged in ahead of him, hoping he would be able to stick on. The other three were looking strong. In ‘09 it was here that my heart rate began rising for the effort, the first warning for the impending collapse on the slopes of Hamilton. This time my heart rate was looking ok, hanging at a high but reasonable 160. My stomach still felt good.

We hit the two half mile pitches that mark the end of the climbing before the Junction at a strong pace over 300W. I was happy at how little my legs complained. On the following descents, again I couldn’t hold the lines that Nathan carved, and ended up gapping Marc as well. I wasted some energy getting us back up to Nathan and Alan, once again feeling stupid for my wheel choice, and surprised at the difference in handling.
We rolled into the junction at about 6:35 elapsed, 10 minutes slower than ‘09, even though I had only spent a few minutes off the bike. Our pace this year had been sustainable for me, and I was feeling confident that I could remain strong for the remainder of the ride. I filled up water, got a Coke, grabbed some food, and used the porta-potty. Alan and I rolled out after a few minutes, with Marc soon following. It turns out Nathan had quietly left a bit earlier. I expected him to drop me on Hamilton, so I almost welcomed that, as I needed to set my own pace at this point. As Alan and I were spinning from the rest stop, we saw Bal headed rapidly toward us, backward on the course - he yelled that he had blown by the stop as he passed us. Bummer. Adding miles is the last thing you want to do on a ride like this.

Alan was surprised that I had driven all the way up from San Diego to ride the DMD. I mentioned how I loved riding in the area, coming back to my hometown. Driving to a ride like this seems a lot more worth it than a long journey to an office park crit in my collegiate racing days. He mentioned that at least someone was enjoying this, because it was really starting to hurt, and he was wondering why he did this. It was just a reminder to me how important keeping a positive mindset is in endurance riding - I do this because I love it - and as long as my fueling and nutrition is going well, it’s easy to stay happy. Alan dropped back as Marc caught up, and we talked a bit on the approach to Hamilton, where he stopped for a nature break at the top of a small climb. I told him I knew I’d see him later on. He said never be so sure, this is really just the beginning of the ride. I thought about that and fully agreed - the 120 miles and 12,000 feet of climbing to this point were really only a sort of prologue, the real separation of riders only began on the slopes ahead. For now I pushed that out of my mind and pressed on, enjoying the fast terrain leading to the base of the climb.

There are large mile markers on the road counting down to the summit, and right around the “7” the fun starts. A mile at 8%. I powered up it, trying to ward off my doubts, my worry at the climbing ahead. Then a brief twisting descent, a bridge river crossing, a mini rest stop (no need to stop here), and I was at the pièce de résistance, the 4 and a half miles of 9% to the top of Hamilton, 2,000 feet above. So quickly the imagined totality of the climb, the big numbers, the memories of bad times past, the fear of a meltdown, fade into the mundane reality of actually getting up the damn thing. The miles, the minutes, the pedal strokes, the world, everything in slow motion. I was crawling,3.5 W/kg, and struggling at that, 7 mph or less on the endless turns on the dry tree-lined hillside, no real visible landmarks to judge forward progress against.

As I slogged up the mountain, I was growing light headed. My legs felt empty and my power was dropping slowly. Nothing to do but concentrate, keep pushing the pedals around, just let the climb happen. Quackcyclist SAG extraordinaire George, who had been tailing our group for much of the day, pulled up alongside me. I didn’t really need anything but to get to the top, but I took some M+Ms and encouragement and got back to work. After 38 minutes of focused, concentrated, pained, effort, I reached the summit with great relief. I hadn’t smoked up the climb, but I hadn’t self destructed. And I had a long descent ahead. Bring it on.

So I attacked the slow, winding descent of the frontside of Hamiton, taking the curves as fast as I could. It still wasn't very fast. I’ve descended this mountain many times, but never gotten much enjoyment out of it. Many of the turns have no good line and poor pavement, it’s hard to get much speed, and the descent is broken up with pesky climbs. But it still offered a welcome respite to the rigors of all the earlier climbing. Midway down the descent, I looked back and Marc had caught back up. I was surprised it had taken him this long, but I let him take the lead and followed his line. We came together into Grant Park, 8 miles from the base, and started up the 1 and a half mile climb over the ridgeline to the last section of descent. Marc dropped his chain and I spun easy for a while, thinking he would be back up soon. After a few minutes, he hadn’t come, and I couldn’t see him behind. I kept going, feeling a bit bad, but sure that I would see him soon.

Soon the climb crested and the fastest, most enjoyable part of the descent led to the right turn onto Crothers Road. On the annoying, steep out and back to the home that serves as the rest stop, I saw Nathan headed back out, and we waved. He was at least 5 minutes ahead. Chapeau, I thought.. I would try, but with Sierra looming I didn’t see bringing him back. For those spending much time at the rest stops, the Crothers stop must be great. For me, the out and back was frustrating, and I much preferred the Grant Park stop location from the 2005 ride. I topped up my fluids, grabbed some food, and headed out just as Marc was arriving. There was one thing on my mind. Sierra Road.

Only 15 minutes later and I was at the base of the 3.5 mile, 9.5%, 1800 foot climb. I know the climb all too well; it has been a centerpiece training climb for me. The steep sections, many well above 10% for long periods, make it very difficult fresh, and simply masochistic after 155 tough miles. My best climb of the road was under 24 minutes. In the Tour of California, the top riders summit in under 19. But on this day, my expectation was more like 40. The one blessing of the ridiculously steep grades is that you as long as you are turning the pedals, you’re putting out decent power. And so I crawled up the familiar grades, speed in the 5s and 6s, not able to able to will my legs to push any harder. Although it was tough, it was comfortable, and I knew exactly where I was, and what I had in store, at all points. This made it far easier to me than Hamilton. I looked back often, surveying the ever expanding view of Silicon Valley, expecting to see Marc at any moment. About 2/3rds in, a flash of green, a beard, long hair, there he was. He passed me, and offered a “great climb.” “You’re a beast” I gasped. I used him as a carrot, trying not to let him shrink too much. And I watched him, a hundred yards ahead, as we toiled to the top. 33 glacial minutes and I was over, traversing the ridgeline, then at the “Pet the Goat” rest stop.

I filled up, grabbed some food, and left, knowing Marc would catch me on the descent. The ride was looking good; all I had to do now was hang on. After the fast, enjoyable descent down Felter Rd, Marc caught me on the steep and short “Calaveras Wall”. We made good time working together on the rollers around the reservoir. Then we traded pulls into Sunol. Marc, still looking as fresh as the morning, took more time than his share at the front. We spent around a minute at Sunol, filled our bottles, and got back on the road, ready to tackle the last 25 mile section and be done with it.

A quick jaunt on the high-traffic, unpleasant Niles Canyon Road, and we were at the penultimate climb of the day, the tame, tree-shaded, riverside climb of Palomares. The climb gains 1100 feet in just under 5 miles, and consists of a few steep sections interspersed with flats, making for the most mellow climb of the ride. Marc and I took it at an easy pace, whiling away the climb chatting about the usual: riding, training, life. And we were up and over, hammering the fast descent and runoff.

On the way through Castro Valley we came across the first series of stop lights in many miles. I was tempted to roll a red at a T intersection - as there was no intersection that broke the bike lane - but Marc asked that we stopped - adding that he never violated lights. I was impressed, and thought of Jim, and all the reminders of how important it is to always ride safely - and to display to other drivers and cyclists that following traffic laws is important, even in situations where it seems “ok”. Soon enough we were on our way and up Crow Canyon road, Marc hammering on the front, me hanging on.

It was only a few miles, but plenty long enough, on the busy, unremarkable Crow Canyon Rd before we came to the final test of the day, Norris Canyon, a steep, short, unwelcome climb over the ridgeline that lay between us and the finish in San Ramon. Marc, apparently unfazed by the 200 miles in his legs, attacked the slope and I followed, with great effort. This hurt. It was only a mile or so of climbing, but he slipped away as I awkwardly muscled my gear around, my head pounding, legs resisting. I had been riding hard since Sierra and was way behind on calories and fluids. Allowing lapses in hydration and fueling are a rookie mistake, but one that requires constant vigilance to avoid. After summiting Sierra I mentally relaxed, slipping on the intake regimen, but continuing to ride hard. Oops.

Marc held up until I caught him again, and mentioned “we rode this far together, we’re finishing together.” He could have dropped me on the climb, and put a minute or two into me by the end. The competition in doubles like this is unique, much more collegial and nowhere near as cutthroat as USCF racing. Sure enough he once again easily pulled away over the top, which finally arrived for me too, accompanied by a wave of relief, and I joined him on the descent as we hammered the remaining miles to the San Ramon Marriott. We finished in 12:18, a time I was very happy with. It had been a pleasure to ride with Marc, and although we came in together, he was clearly the stronger rider in the end. Nathan was the first to finish 15 minutes earlier, and I missed the chance to talk to him. I took some iced sparkling apple juice and went back to the car to change.

My head was reeling and my stomach was shocked by the cold fruit juice. I sat in the car with closed eyes for a few minutes, then retched the past few hours worth out of my stomach. I couldn’t believe it. Or maybe I could. Even on a strong finish, I was still having these issues. At this intensity, even a few hours of inattention could push me over the edge. Mental note taken. I can not let this happen during my long(er) rides. Just a few more bottles of water to balance out the calories and I suspect I would have been ok.

My parents had moved up their flight from Vegas to be able to see me at the end, but I had just beat them to San Ramon, perhaps faster than they expected. It was nice to see them, and I’m sure nicer to them that they weren’t taking me to the hospital as in ‘09. Despite a missed turn, a lost contact, and disturbingly little training, Bal finished in just under 13 hours, a superb showing for his first double. His first 300k and 400k had only been a few months earlier; Honey Badger will be a rider to watch in this year’s 508.

Overall I was very happy with my performance. I had maintained a high intensity, about 3.3 W/kg norm power throughout the entire ride. Although there were several points of difficulty (exactly where I expected), mentally I felt strong and within control at all times. Had I been going longer I would have moderated my effort, but this was perfect training. I ended up with only about 12 minutes of stopped time, which would be difficult to improve on. I would have needed to moderate my effort, especially in the latter hours had I been going long(er), but that is to be expected, and my intensity here was already significantly higher than the ‘09 508, where I performed well, apart from my disastrous meltdown on Towne Pass. My brevet riding earlier in the year paid large dividends here, and I look forward to the coming months of increasing training as I sharpen my distance riding for Hoodoo and the 508.

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