Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Short, Medium, Long

I managed to find time for a "medium" length ride a couple of weekends ago. There is not much to report since it was some of my usual roads (up Old La Honda, down Kings Mountain). I often use the terms "short", "medium", and "long" to describe my rides, but perhaps I should elaborate on what those vague terms mean.

On the face of it, those terms actually mean nothing. What is short for me, may be long for someone else, or vice vera. I use these terms as a quick shorthand to describe the effort involved, so I need to give more precise definitions to make them useful.

Short: 1.5 to 3 hours, 20 to 30 miles

I do not do many training rides under 1 and a half hours. Anything less is not much of a workout and so not that enjoyable to me. For a ride of this length, I need to do minimal planning. I can usually just head out the door after deciding to ride.

Even if the route is hilly, it will not be long enough to deplete my energy. I will not need to eat anything in the middle, and may not need anything beforehand. One bottle of water is usually enough (unless it is a particularly hot day), so I do not have to plan water or bathroom breaks.

My home is on the valley floor, which is at 100 feet elevation. But I only need to travel 6 miles to reach the hills. On a ride this length, I probably will not reach any of the higher summits. I might reach 1000 feet at the highest point.

I usually prefer to do longer rides, so I do a "short" ride only if my time is limited. An example of a "short" ride is my usual Cupertino/Saratoga training loop.

Medium: 4 to 5 hours, 40 to 60 miles

At this level of effort, I need to do some minimal planning. I would probably eat something before starting. I may or may not need some food in the middle, so I will either carry a snack with me, or plan a route that has a food source (store, cafe, etc.) at an appropriate rest point.

I will likely need a bathroom break at some point, so my route will include at least one park with a public bathroom. Two water bottles should be enough, but it is a good idea to have a water stop (which could be the same as the food stop) on the route.

With this much distance, I can reach some of the higher summits. Mostly likely I will reach 2000 to 3000 feet elevation at the high point, but the total elevation gain (including all the up and down) is more likely to be 4000 to 5000 feet. Often I will choose a route that takes me to Skyline Boulevard, where I can look down at my home from far above.

An example of a "medium" ride is the one I did a couple of weekends ago.

Long: over 6 hours, over 70 miles

This length of ride requires most of the day, so I usually have to plan to be free well in advance. I will definitely need to eat a good amount (not just a small snack) in the middle. I will need at least two bathroom breaks. I will carry two water bottles and will need to be able to refill them.

Fortunately, I live in a place where these requirements are not hard to meet. There are numerous park in a 50 mile radius, so it is not hard to plan a route that goes through places with facilities that I need.

Covering this much distance, I would likely require multiple layers of clothing since different areas at different elevations at different times of day could be either cold or hot, and (depending on the season) dry or wet. This is enough distance to ride from home to the Pacific Ocean and back, which requires crossing a mountain range each way.

Another issue for a ride this length is pacing. Because I have a rough plan on when/where I can stop, I need to be sure that I do not exhaust myself between those points. Note that this is not a problem when doing an organized century, because those have frequent rest stops with food, water, and restroom facilities.

An example of a "long" ride would be this ride to the coast (which I have not done for a while).

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Another Short Training Route

Having a baby in full time daycare is cutting into my training regimen. Since I am responsible for dropping her off in the morning, it is tricky to get any riding into my morning schedule. The outdoor route is out of the question since I do not have the time for it. Even riding the trainer is hard to fit in.

On top of schedule limitations, the baby brings home plenty of germs to get herself and her parents sick. She gave me the gift of a virus that got me sick and kept me off the bicycle for two weeks.

I had some time for a bike ride this past weekend, but not enough for a long ride. With only a couple hours free, I initially thought about trying my usual short training route, which I have not done for a while. But then I thought I should try something new.

For some time, I have been wanting to attempt some very steep hills in the nearby cities of Los Altos and Los Altos Hills (although the names are almost the same, they are separate cities which are adjacent). Note that the latter is currently the 8th most expensive city in the US by median house price ($3.28 million). This route certainly takes me by many HUGE mansions and estates.

This route contains 5 notable hills — Mora, Viscaino, Ascension/Anacapa, La Barranca, and Quinhill. These are the names of the streets containing the hills. These are all very steep, with grades between 16% and 20%. However, all the the hills are short; no more than a couple blocks long.

The large loop is ridden clockwise, and the smaller ones are done as figure-eight loops.

I found that the total elevation of this route is about 2000 feet, which is slightly more than my usual Cupertino/Saratoga loop. Because it is two miles long and because of the number of very steep roads, my total time is about 15 minutes longer than the Cupertino/Saratoga route.

I will probably try to do this route occasionally in the mornings when I have time.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

2009 King Ridge Gran Fondo

104 total miles,
6500 feet total elevation gain,
9 hours 15 minutes total
(7 hours 45 minutes on the bicycle)

I finished my fourth (and likely last) century of this year with the King Ridge Gran Fondo. "Gran Fondo" is Italian for "big ride". This was the first year for the event, promoted by top professional cyclist Levi Leipheimer, who is a resident of Santa Rosa, where the event was organized.

My plan was to take the whole family to Santa Rosa for the event so we could visit and stay with our close friends Urmi, Chris, Devan, and Rohan. They had to change plans and be out of town that weekend, but they insisted that we stay at their house. Without them, I was not sure that Vaishali and Aasha would need to come, but Vaishali wanted to join me even though she and Aasha would not seeing me for most of Saturday.

It took us a while to get packed after work Friday, so we made the drive to Santa Rosa during some of the lingering rush hour traffic, which added about 30 minutes to the usual 2 hour drive. We drove straight to the registration and then headed to the house where we quickly unpacked and retired for the night.

I woke up at 5:30am before my alarm went off. I had plenty of time to get ready. Vaishali drove me most of the way to the start (which was only 6 miles from the house), and I rode the final mile. It was a cold morning, but I saved some warmth by being in the car. I met up with my friend and co-worker Michael, and another business associate, Tim, at the start.

The ride started and ended in Santa Rosa, and followed the loop counter-clockwise.

It was an ambitiously big event, with 3500 riders (and this limit was reached weeks before the ride took place). Because the police closed the intersections on the initial part of the course in town, they had all riders start at once. They had the riders self-ordered from fastest to slowest. Tim, Michael, and I were near the middle. It took us 25 minutes to reach the start line from the time the leaders departed, meaning we crossed the start line at 8:35am. Vaishali and Aasha had waited near the start line and finally saw us after the long wait.

The big bunch of riders stayed together for nearly 20 miles, at which point the 100-mile, 65-mile, and 30-mile routes diverged. Tim sped ahead of us at the start and he must have kept a strong pace because Michael and I never saw him again that day. We kept a strong pace (up to 25 miles per hour for several stretches) and passed many other riders.

I had not eaten much breakfast, so we stopped at the first rest stop and I loaded up with high energy food (mostly cookies). We skipped the second rest stop and then were confronted with a long, steep climb. This would be the end of the fast speeds. I kept a steady pace of 5.5 to 6 miles per hour, which allowed me to pass many riders, with only a couple passing me. (Note that the pros and elite riders at the front probably climbed at twice the speed I did.) The road seemed to endlessly continue upward, so I thought I should slow down to conserve energy since I did not know how far it was to the summit.

When I reached the top of the climb, there were many riders waiting there for their trailing friends. After a couple minutes, Michael caught up to me and we continued on. The climbing was not really over, but it was broken up with flat sections and a few short descents. The lunch stop was near the halfway mark and near the highest elevation point. We stopped for sandwiches (plus many more cookies and potato chips for me).

Near the top of King Ridge Road. The road follows the top of a
mountain ridge, so there were beautiful vistas on both sides.

After the rest we continued with a sharp plunge, which had many signs warning cyclist to be careful. However, after a couple miles were confronted with a moderately steep but long climb. This was not an ideal time for exertion, since we had full stomachs, so we kept a very slow pace to ensure that our lunches stayed inside our bodies, where they were needed.

The route continued with several more miles of short climbs and descents. At this point, an ambulance with its sirens wailing passed us in the opposite direction. We guessed that an overeager rider had an accident on the steep downhill section. As we approached the coast and viewed the Pacific Ocean, the descents became more pronounced as we headed down towards sea level.

Around this point, I passed and got passed by another rider who looked vaguely familiar. I could not place who she was at first, but then I recognized her bicycle. She was the rider who crashed in front of me in the Sequoia Century two years ago. I asked her if her first name was the one I remembered from the incident. It was. I told her who I was and she was surprised and happy to see me again.

I asked her what eventually happened, since all I knew was that she was taken to the hospital because we thought she had a dislocated shoulder. She said her shoulder was fine, but that her leg had been broken. She had several screws put in to let it heal and was not mobile for a few months. After knowing she went through all that, it was great to see her on a bicycle doing challenging rides again. We chatted as we rode together for several miles. We finally split when I stopped to take a picture of the dramatic coastline where the road finally drops steeply to the sea.

Meyers Grade Road plunges steeply towards the Pacific coast.

Now the route took us back southward along the coast. Here we had to face another challenge — strong, gusting winds. Fortunately, the wind was mostly at our backs. It would have been overwhelming if we had to fight that too, after having finished many thousand feet of climbing. Unfortunately, it was often a cross-wind, meaning a sudden gust could unexpectedly push us across the road. Although the traffic was not heavy, we were sharing the road with cars and there was very little shoulder space to allow them to easily pass us. We had to maintain a constant, firm grip on the handlebars to be prepared for the sudden side forces. Also, being near beaches, we were sand-blasted at various points.

We finally headed back inland near the 75 mile mark to face the last hard climb of the route — Coleman Valley Road. This was the one part of the course I had been on previously, since these few miles overlapped with the route of the Mount Tam Double Century which I did last year. Michael had been dreading this climb and he stopped to stretch before the main ascent. I did not want to cool off and stiffen, so I continued on.

My heart was strong enough to do the climb because I was not gasping for air, but I was worried about my leg muscles — whether they could stay intact. They had been shredded by the initial fast pace, and the long, steep climbs earlier. I was able to keep a steady 5 miles per hour pace and gradually make it to the top with no trouble. I stopped and Michael came by only a couple minutes later, his fears being unfounded.

We continued to deal with the wind (and at one point I was nearly blown off the road by a strong gust as I made a turn on a rough patch of road) until we managed to get far enough inland that it was mostly blocked by the hills. After a brief pause at the final rest stop, we continued for the final stretch. Here the course retraced the morning route. The minor hills which we did not even notice when we were fresh, were now not particularly difficult, but definitely annoying.

The remaining flat section played to Michael's strength and my weakness, as he sped ahead of me at a pace I could not sustain. He stopped and waited for me to catch up and we rode the final mile to the finish together, rolling across the finish line at 4:52pm. He left after resting a short time. I stayed and briefly explored the post-ride festivities. I then met Vaishali at the same spot where she dropped me in the morning. We headed back to the house to clean up and pack.

On the way back home, we stopped in San Francisco to have dinner with our friend Rom. I ate an amazing amount of pizza. Even though it was a challenging ride, I still had enough energy to stay up later than I usually do, and drive all the way home.

The biking season is nearly over, and there are very few remaining events to do this year (particularly since we will be losing daylight hours quickly soon), even if I had time to do them. I think I will now have to just try to stay in shape for next year when I can do more centuries, and hopefully another double century or two.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Slowing Down

Family responsibilities have finally slowed me down. With so much weekend work building up at home, it is becoming difficult to find the time for long rides. It has also been hard to attempt my usual training rides after work. These get me home too late to be an effective contributor around the house.

I still am able to ride the bicycle trainer in the garage many weekday mornings. However, I have also been trying outdoor rides before work. I have found a route that is just long enough (distance-wise) and hilly enough to be challenging, but short enough (time-wise) to fit into my schedule.

The big loop is ridden clockwise, and the small one at bottom is ridden counter-clockwise.

I ride straight south from my house for a few miles to get to the hills of the nearby towns of Saratoga and Cupertino. Although none of the climbs are especially long, they are steep (up to 17% grade in three places). There is also a stretch that is long, straight, and usually windless where I can attempt to pedal at my maximum, unassisted speed. I have reached 31.5 mph (50 kph) briefly. I can only sustain that top speed for a few seconds.

Tollgate Road branches steeply from a flat section of Highway 9 in Saratoga.

It is a total distance of 22 miles, and a total elevation gain of 2000 feet. I am able to do the whole thing in under one and a half hours (usually 1 hour 25 minutes). This is definitely a good workout. I have to satisfy myself with this until I have more free time for longer rides. I may do only one more century this year.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Canyon Classic Century

107 total miles,
5000 feet total elevation gain,
8 hours total
(7 hours on the bicycle)

Continuing my trend of riding centuries on new roads this year, I did the Canyon Classic Century this past weekend. Like my last century, I had limited time for training beforehand, but this course had only a moderate amount of climbing, so I did not need to be at my top fitness level.

The start was in city of Patterson, which I had never been to before. It was a one and a half hour drive to get there. I left home at 5:00am and reached at 6:30am. The route to drive there is on the worst traffic corridor (highway 580) in the Bay Area, but there were few other cars at this time of day.

Click on the image for the interactive map.
The start/finish is marked "E", and the route was clockwise. The remaining letters mark my rest stops.

I registered, got my bicycle set up, and got under way at 6:45am. There was light drizzle at the start, but not enough to make me put on the rain jacket I was carrying. The precipitation cleared after 10 minutes.

After a few flat miles, the climbing starts on Del Puerto Canyon Road. This was the part of the route I was most interested in. It was part of the route used by the Tour of California (one of the premier bicycle races in the U.S.) two years ago. I found it beautiful and not very steep.

When I arrived at the first rest area near the 25 mile mark at 8:15am, it started drizzling again. Still, it was not strong enough for me to consider putting on my jacket. I filled my water bottles and ate a few snacks. The rain stopped just a few minutes after I started riding again. The next few miles were the steepest part of the course, but nothing more than I am used to.

The next part of the route is on Mines Road, which I have ridden before on the Mt Hamilton Challenge. I decided to skip the next two rest stops to save time. I usually do not need to stop more than every 25 miles, and the cool wet weather meant my water needs were relatively low (one bottle of water every 25 miles).

The next stop was lunch near the end of Mines Road just before the town of Livermore, near the 50 mile point of the route. It was 11:00am, meaning I was making good time, so I rested a little longer here.

The next part of the route was the climb out of Livermore back to the Central Valley. This was only moderately steep uphill, but the section after the summit was a steep downhill. After reaching the bottom, the wind was at our back, so I could maintain a 20-25 mph pace with minimal effort.

I reached the next rest stop near the 75 mile point at 12:45pm, just as the route left the hills and entered the farmlands. After a brief stop, I started on the final flat 25 miles. This part of the route was the least interesting, since all flat farmland is basically the same.

I reached the finish at 2:45pm. I ate just a little before heading home since I knew I would get hungry on the 90 minute drive otherwise. By keeping a fast pace and skipping a couple rest stops, I managed to finish quickly and get back home with a good amount of the day still remaining.

I have made plans to do another century in October, but I need to see if I can find another interesting one before then.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

I Care Classic

100 total miles,
5100 feet total elevation gain,
7 hours 35 minutes total time
(6 hours 40 minutes on the bicycle)

Even though I thought my last century was done without much preparation, the one I just did was done with even less. In the three weeks since I did the Mt. Hamilton Challenge, I have been on a bicycle just once — riding my trainer for one hour.

The reason I thought this was feasible was that this is century is easier than others I have done. No century is actually easy since it still requires several hours of cycling. But a course like this one which has much fewer hills is considerably less difficult than any of the ones I did last year. This course has a total elevation gain of 5100 feet, which is comparable to many of my training rides which cover a shorter distance.

The other motivating factor was that all the roads on this course would be new to me. I had read about some of them and had intended to try them some time.

The ride was on Saturday, and I rode the trainer on the Tuesday before. At that point it had been two and a half weeks since being on a bicycle. I could tell during that session that my strength had increased (my muscles had fully rebuilt during the rest) but my endurance level had dropped. I have noticed that my endurance remains high for about one and a half weeks of rest, but then drops after that. This is why I usually rest for a full week before any major cycling event (to let my strength rebuild without losing endurance).

I woke up at 3:45am to prepare and make the 45 minute drive to the start in Morgan Hill. I wanted to begin the ride at the earliest start time of 6:00am. There were two reasons for this — the earlier start meant an earlier finish and more time to do other things that day, and also it was predicted to be a very hot day, so it would be nicer to start in the chill of the morning air.

By the time I arrived, set up my bicycle, registered and started, it was 6:10am. It was cold enough to make me wear my jacket. The first rest stop was only 15 miles into the route, and by then the jacket was no longer needed. My plan was to only stop at the odd numbered rest stops. There were more stops than I thought I needed on this course, and skipping a few would allow me to finish faster.

The only significant climb of the course began after the first rest top. Still, the peak was only 1200 feet; lower than most of my training rides. I had no need to break at the 2nd rest stop which was at the summit. The 3rd stop was at the bottom of the hill, and I refuelled there.

The next part of the course was the completely flat stretch from Gilroy to Hollister and back. Being next to farm fields and irrigation ditches meant an abundance of flying insects. Although I tried to keep my mouth closed, I would inadvertently open it periodically and capture a bug that I would immediately spit out. Once, the angle was just right that a large bug went directly to the top of my throat. As hard as I tried, there was no way for me to spit it out. My only choice was to grab my water bottle and flush it down. It would be another case of involuntary non-vegetarianism.

As I planned, I skipped the 4th rest stop but took a break at the 5th. By now the sun was becoming oppressive. The heat was much more apparent when I was stopped. I had been averaging 18 miles per hour on the flat roads, and this amount of breeze was keeping me cool.
This rest stop did not have much food, it was mostly just a water break. It looked like I would have to stop at the next one and switch my strategy to stopping at the even numbered ones.

The next rest stop was just before the next set of hills. I called home and reported that I was 70 miles into the course and feeling great. I fuelled up and headed uphill. The road was not particularly steep. But the combination of the grade, the heat, and my lack of recent training took its toll and I started tiring.

Although I was not having any serious problems, the ride was becoming harder than it should have been. I had to focus on pushing through, even though I was becoming dizzy from the exertion. My strategy of skipping rest stops would have to be abandoned. I needed to rest at the next one which was at the top of the climb. It was oppressively hot by now and I relaxed in the shade while eating and drinking.

That was the last rest stop, and the rest of the route was a short climb, followed by a fast downhill, and a few final miles back to the start. These went by uneventfully, and I rolled in at 1:45pm. I was tired but no longer dizzy. I checked in at the finish and grabbed some food and relaxed inside the cool building.

The ride was a good measure of my core conditioning. I found that I could be at less than my peak conditioning and still do a century. It was nice being on new roads, and I think I may another new century or two this summer.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Mt Hamilton Challenge

130 total miles,
8000 feet total elevation gain,
12 hours 10 minutes total time
(10 hours 20 minutes on the bicycle)

I decided to do my first century of the year. I did the Mt. Hamilton Challenge last year, and this year it fit perfectly in my schedule. The three weekends before and two after were not available due to travel. I could not pass up the chance to do this challenging ride since it fell on an open weekend.

But there were several obstacles in my way:

  1. I have not been doing long rides regularly for months.
  2. I was recovering from a sore hamstring.
  3. I had been sick with a cold since a few days before the ride.
Number (1) did not bother me too much because I have been keeping in shape riding my trainer, so I knew I had the stamina. My concern with this is since I have not given my muscles this long a workout for several months, they could cramp.

I was not that concerned with number (2) because my leg felt good the night before the ride. I do not know how I injured it. It was sore from one week before the event. I had been careful to stretch it each morning and evening to get it healed and loose, so it had been getting better.

Number (3) was the main concern. I do not get sick that often, so I was annoyed that it would happen on the date that I wanted to do a century. I did not know if it would be possible to ride while sick, so I was hoping for a full recovery before the event.

I went about my preparations with the assumption that I would be fully healthy by the day of the ride. I planned all the details, and even cooked pasta Thursday night for the ride. (We have to provide our own food for this ride — I give them one bag of food for each rest stop.)

By Friday night, I still had congestion, runny nose, and a headache. My only hope was to continue preparing as though I would be recovered by the next morning. If that happened, I would ride. If not, I would cancel.

I went to bed early, but did not sleep restfully. I woke up once with body aches, and woke up several other times to blow my nose. I woke up at 5:00 am with a sinus headache. That was not a good sign. I optimistically drank my coffee and started my preparations, even though I could not see how I could do it.

Somehow, by 5:45 am, I felt a rush of energy. My sinuses cleared and my aches went away. Maybe it was just adrenaline, but I now felt that the ride was doable. I finished my preparations and had Vaishali drop me at the start in Santa Clara (4 miles from home).

6:50am, 0 miles, 0 feet

The start ended up being a half hour later than I had planned. I had taken extra time getting ready in the morning because I was deciding whether to go or not. There was a contingency plan in case I started feeling sick again — I could decide at the top of Mt. Hamilton whether I would continue or whether I would abandon and coast back down to the start.

I was planning on keeping a relatively slow pace up Mt. Hamilton. Even though I was feeling better, I was still a little sick, so I did not want to exhaust myself early. Plus, I did not want to strain my leg in case that problem would return.

10:22am, 35 miles, 4300 feet

It was a relatively cool morning, and I expected it to be cold at the top. However, because it was completely sunny at the summit, it was not too bad. I sat in the sunlight and ate the peanut butter jelly sandwich I packed. I had also packed a small bag of cookies for each stop so I could eat them on the bike if I needed energy. I ate a few of these and put the rest in my pocket.

I was feeling still full of energy. My leg was feeling normal. This was enough for me to decide to continue with the ride. I put my jacket on for the steep descent. There have been some late rains this season, so there were many wildflowers in bloom in the meadows on the other side of Mt. Hamilton.

1:08pm, 63 miles, 7000 feet

The second rest stop is at the halfway point. By this point, the majority of the other riders were ahead of me. They either started before, or passed me. This stop was less crowded than when I did it last year because I was in the trailing group of slower riders.

Here I ate some of the pasta I made. I could tell that I lost a lot of sodium because the potato chips I packed did not taste salty at all, and neither did the V8. I also ate the croissant I packed, and was totally full. I had finished the cookies in my pocket along the way, and replaced them with a new bag.

By this point, the majority of the climbing was done. It was all downhill or flat to the next rest stop. Along the way, I started feeling some tightness in my leg. I kept this under control by standing and pedaling (to stretch the leg more), and by rubbing the back of my thigh as I rode. I kept doing this periodically for the rest of the ride and the leg never became a problem.

The final 10 mile flat stretch to the next stop were actually quite difficult. We had to ride straight into a strong wind. This slowed me down quite a bit. Last year we had no such winds, but it was hotter. Each is a different difficulty, but I would probably pick the heat if I had a choice.

3:33pm, 91 miles, 7000 feet

I pulled into the third rest stop and immediately gave Vaishali a call. The roads are so remote that there was no cell phone reception at either of the previous two rest stops. She knew that if I had any problems, she would have heard from me earlier. Still, she was happy to hear me report that I was doing great.

I had the same amount of food packed for this stop, but was less hungry at this point. I needed the energy, but did not want to overstuff myself and cause a stomach upset. I ate most of the pasta and some of the chips. I pocketed the croissant and another bag of cookies (I ate none from the previous bag on the way here). I guessed that these would make it back home untouched.

I was just a little concerned about the final 35 miles back to the start. I still had a good amount of energy, and the route was not as challenging as the first part, but last year I totally crashed here. This year I rested for at least 30 minutes at each stop to allow the food to start digesting properly.

The few small hills on this part of the route were difficult in my weakened state, but I took them slowly and steadily. I handled them much better than last year.

7:00pm, 125 miles, 8000 feet

I rolled to the finish feeling very happy with my decision to do the ride despite all the issues. When I talked to Vaishali at the previous stop, I told her not to pick me up here. Instead, I would just ride the 4 miles to home.

7:25pm, 130 miles, 8000 feet

I came home feeling triumphant and exhausted. I cleaned up, ate some dinner, and went straight to bed. As my adrenaline wore off, my illness symptoms returned. I felt chilled when I went to bed, and I woke up feeling hot in the middle of the night. I had nasal congestion again the next morning. Basically, I was still sick. I could not say if the ride made the illness worse. But it did not matter — I was willing to pay that price for the accomplishment.

This was not the hardest route I had ridden, but all the circumstances and timing made it difficult. It was a good test of my core fitness, and it felt great to pass.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Pushing Myself

I have not written much recently because there has not been much to report. I have been on the bicycle, but as I explained in my last report a couple months ago, the bicycle is on a stationary trainer in my garage due to my time constraints.

But I have gone out on the road a couple times since the last report. I have stuck to riding up Old La Honda Road. This is because I have been recording my time up the 3.5 mile hill as a measure of my fitness level. Overall, it is a medium-length ride of 41 miles that I can do in less than 3 hours.

The last two times, I matched my personal best, thus proving that riding the trainer is a productive workout. This time, I was determined to push myself harder than I had before.

For a while, I had been thinking about how I have gone from being a beginner-level cyclist to an intermediate-level. Yet, it feels like I have not gotten much stronger or faster for a long time. Eventually I realized that I probably have to increase the intensity of my rides.

When I first started serious riding over two years ago, I could not make it up the hills. I would push myself just to keep going at a slow pace. I would often have to stop to catch my breath before continuing. Sometimes I would run out of energy and have to abandon the climb and turn around to coast back down. Through relentless pursuit of the summit, I became strong enough to always reach the top, and now I practically never stop to rest along the way.

It struck me that the reason I have not gotten stronger lately is because I need to push myself to the point of exhaustion like I would be at when I was a beginner. Only then would my body respond and improve my fitness level. Even though I always push myself, I need to push myself even harder. I need to burn so much energy that I feel like I may not make it to the top.

Back to my last ride. From the outset, I started strong. Usually I keep just a little in reserve to be sure I get to the top. This time I decided to keep a fast pace regardless of how tired I got. I started panting pretty soon, but I did not let that bother me. At the halfway mark, my leg muscles were burning, but I did not let up. At the two-thirds mark, my legs felt weak and were begging me to lower the pace so they could recover. I ignored that strong temptation.

I reached the top panting and feeling totally spent. I made it in 24 minutes 30 seconds — a full two minutes faster than my previous best time. It may not sound like it, but that is a major improvement.

I confirmed my status as an intermediate-level cyclist. I passed about 15 other cyclists on my way up. But I was passed by two elite-level cyclists who were keeping a casual conversation going with each other while effortlessly zooming by me, as I panted.

Although tired at the top, I recovered pretty quickly and paused only long enough to put on my jacket for the trip downhill. I had plenty of energy to keep a fast pace on the mostly flat route back home. Again, passing more people than the number who passed me.

So even if very long rides rarely fit into my schedule this year, I should be able to make up for that by increasing the intensity level. That actually takes as much mental strength as it does physical strength. But the results I am seeing should be motivating enough to do it.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Winter Training

Having been mostly home-bound the past couple months, I did not have the chance to go on long cycling adventures like I did earlier in the year. Having worked so hard at improving my fitness level, I thought I should find an alternate way to stay in shape. It would be a shame to lose all my gains.

It looks like I have found the solution — a bicycle trainer. This is a device that I attach to my bicycle that converts it to a stationary bike. It is basically a simple stand that holds the bicycle upright by the rear axle, and provides resistance to the rear wheel.

All the time I have attempted in years past to ride an actual stationary bicycle resulted in my becoming bored to the point of mental pain. My hope was that since I am using one of my actual bicycles, I would have some familiarity and comfort, leading to a better experience.

Although skeptical, I decided to give it a try. The fact that I did not have to buy a new trainer (my friend Rom lent me his since he was not currently using it) made it easier to start the experiment.

Click on either picture to see the full-size image.
Here you can see my bicycle set up on one side of the garage. I have placed the front wheel on some wooden planks to keep the bicycle level. In the second picture, you can see a close-up of the bicycle attachment to the trainer. It is being held by both sides of the rear axle, and a resistance cylinder is pressed to the tire.

It was probably good that I was expecting the experience to be boring, because I was able to put up with it and get a good workout the first time I tried it. I found that I could pass the time by listening to my MP3 player while riding. (I will do a future report on what exactly I listen to when I ride.) The trainer itself has 5 resistance settings, plus I can further adjust resistance by shifting gears on my bicycle.

I eventually found a routine to get a good workout in a one hour session. I start with 5 minutes of low intensity (medium gearing, medium cadence), then follow with 10 minutes of medium intensity (high gearing, medium cadence), and then 5 minutes of high intensity (high gearing, high cadence). I then twice repeat the sequence of medium/high intensity. Then I finish with 5 minutes medium intensity followed by 5 minutes low intensity.

I set up the bicycle in the garage instead of in the house for one big reason — sweat. My workout requires enough effort that I am dripping with perspiration for the last half hour. I did not want the bother of keeping it from getting on the carpet indoors. Plus the garage is much colder than the inside of the house, so I don't start sweating until later into the workout. It is a good indication that I am getting a good workout that I am sweating profusely even in a 50°F garage.

But the real indicator of the value of the workout would be by whether I am keeping my level of conditioning. I found that the few times that I have been able to get out for short rides, my legs were stronger than they would have been had I not been using the trainer. My hill-climbing strength seemed to have remained at the level it was when I was riding regularly. However, my flat ground strength seemed to have increased. But maybe this was just in my head, since this type of riding is what the trainer simulates the closest.

Last weekend, I had the chance to measure my fitness somewhat objectively. I did a longer ride from home, and the route included Old La Honda Road. As I have mentioned before, this is the benchmark climb for most Bay Area cycling enthusiasts. My time of 26 minutes 20 seconds up the hill matched my personal best. This time pegs me as an "intermediate" level rider. A cyclist fit enough to race competitively would do it in under 20 minutes. Beginner-level riders would probably take 35 minutes or more. Anyone not in shape probably could not make it up the hill at all.

So I am declaring my bicycle trainer experiment a success thus far. I have maintained my fitness level despite not having the time to bicycle outside as much as I used to. I have been able to adjust my schedule so that I am able to ride the trainer for one hour before work 3 days a week. (I am finding that I need to have a couple rest days in my schedule to allow my leg muscles to recover.)

The next season of centuries and double centuries will start in another month or so. Time-wise, I am not yet in a position to plan to do any of them. It's good to know that fitness-wise, I am keeping the same level. So I do not need to plan this far in advance which organized rides I want to do — I can make a last-minute decision, thanks to my trainer.